What do you most want your kids to be:
What follow is my answer to that question.
I got up this morning and went skiing with my good friend Ron. My wife Mary Lou went skiing with a couple of girlfriends. In the line up to the chairlift I bumped into my smiling daughters Emmanuelle and Gabrielle. Gabrielle who is twelve years old is on the Bromont Ski Racing Team and her sister Emmanuelle, who is twenty-one, is a coach on the same team.
Later on I stopped by the slalom course set up by our coaches and chatted with my son Alexandre – also a ski racer – who was out on the hill training with his buds. I came back in for a coffee and thought about what a perfect morning I had: family, friends, being outside doing sports. I thought about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and how as parents we need to be role models for our kids.
It got me in the mood to write a post about a group of extraordinary young men and women I had the privilege of sharing almost two weeks of my life with in Alicante, Spain in early December.
As I sat down in front of the computer and started to reminisce about my recent trip to Spain, the first thought that crossed my mind was how grateful I was to have had the opportunity to spend time with such meaningful people.
My trip to Spain gave me the very unique opportunity to meet and get to know a group of good people who are out to do good everyday and thanks to a unique set of circumstances I get to be part of their journey. You see, I don’t ask for much from those around me; simply being good, grateful and having a happy disposition. While in Spain I didn’t get to hang out with one or two people who share those values but dozens. And I got to enjoy their company while doing a couple of things I am passionate about: business and riding my bike. And to top it off, my wife Mary Lou was part of the trip. So how can one not feel blessed?
The first thing that I did before starting to write was to chose a picture for this post that would embody it all: my values and my passions. By the end of this post you will understand how the picture at the top (me with a group of ten young cyclists) so perfectly captures the essence of goodness, gratitude and happiness. Its connection to riding a bike and doing business is more easily apparent.
The picture was taken in Alicante, Spain where Mary Lou and I just spent almost two weeks. In October of this year I was offered the Chairmanship of a Pro cycling team, which I accepted. I was in Spain to attend the team’s first training camp of the season. Those who know me well or have been following this blog for a while know the story of how I got to go to Spain with a Pro team. My story is the story of the busy businessman, husband, father, grandfather who bought his first road bike in 2006 and became passionate about the sport.
But who would have thought in 2006 when I started riding a road bike that I would become the Chairman of a Pro cycling team six years later. And certainly, who would have thought in 2006 that I could go from training an entire year just to be able to ride 100 km for the first time to this year doing sixteen Pro stages as an amateur.
In the last twelve months I completed the entire eight stages of the Tour of California CTS Race Experience, the seven stages USA Pro Cycling Challenge CTS Race Experience, Stage 15 of the Tour de France. I also raced the 182 km El Tour de Tucson in 4:39 hrs. In 2012, I rode a total of 12,761 km in 515 hours and burned 287,987 calories to do it.
At the camp last week, I was asked to address our riders one night. I told them all my story, the story of my progression as a cyclist, the point being that in life you can set big goals, have big dreams and if you work your butt off you can achieve those goals and realize those dreams. If a married 49 year old businessman with six kids, two granddaughters and a full time job can train to race sixteen Pro stages in one year then surely the riders of a Pro Continental team can aspire to big goals such as competing in the Tour de France on day.
But this post is not about me nor is it the story of a cycling camp in Spain. This post is about a unique group of individuals who are on a mission. They are out to change the way people around the world who have diabetes live their lives. They are using a professional cycling team as a platform to inspire people who are battling diabetes. Their mission is to make an impact in the world by Changing Diabetes. They are the members of Team Novo Nordisk. You may not know their names, but as Dennis Prager says: “The famous are rarely significant and the significant are rarely famous.” Take it from me, the members of Team Novo Nordisk are very significant individuals.
The founder and CEO of Team Novo Nordisk is a thirty year old man named Phil Southerland. Phil is one of the youngest people in the United States to have been diagnosed with diabetes. He was seven months old when doctors told his mother he would likely be blind or dead before the age of 25. Twenty-nine years later, Phil is a successful cyclist, businessman and philanthropist. He is the author of the book Not Dead Yet; My Race Against Disease: From Diagnosis to Dominance. Phil is also a Director of Health Care Planning, Policy, and Patient Advocacy for the World Health Organization.
Phil is married to Biljana Southerland and they live in Atlanta, Georgia.
I first met Phil in Tucson in November 2009 where I was attending a cycling camp. We had dinner together with a group of friends. Phil explained to me what he was up to. At the time the team was called Team Type 1.
He came across as a particularly focused, confident young man who was working hard to make a difference for people with diabetes. I kept in touch with Phil and we saw each other occasionally at bike races.
While in Colorado in August earlier this year – where I was riding the USA Pro Cycling Challenge – I met Phil a few times. I had started to get interested in the business of cycling and wanted to learn more about his business. I was being approached by many other teams. However, I was leery of the whole biking scene – have you heard of Lance Armstrong? I wasn’t interested in getting involved with people who were in the cycling business for vanity reasons: “I want to own a cycling team.” So many cycling teams seem to just be trying to find the next sponsor’s dollars and don’t seem to be headed by people with business acumen. It all seemed to me to be improvised, living from sponsors’ paycheck to the next sponsor’ paycheck.
So why did I decide to associate myself with Phil and accept his invitation to join his organization? Because I believe in what he is trying to do. And I believe he has what it takes to succeed. More specifically, Phil strikes me as an honest businessman who is focused yet flexible and agile. He has a sense of invincibility but at the same time he is very upfront about his own limitations. Here’s my prediction: he will be recognized as one of the most successful business executives out there in cycling before long.
Look at his achievements: Phil bought his first road bike when he was fifteen years old for $400. He is now the CEO of a global sports team with more than 100 cyclists, triathletes and runners who all have diabetes, spearheaded by the world’s first all-diabetes pro-cycling team. Impressive.
And who is Phil’s partner in this exciting venture? Novo Nordisk. Headquartered in Denmark, Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company with 89 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care. I have had the opportunity to meet with several of the Novo Nordisk senior executives in both New York City in November and Spain in December. I have learned a lot about their organization over the last three months and I can categorically say that their partnership with Phil’s organization is very significant as it creates a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness, educate, empower and inspire the over 300 million people with diabetes around the globe. I was most impressed by Novo Nordisk’s commitment to ethical business practices as described in the Novo Nordisk Way and the Novo Nordisk Essentials.
“As Team Novo Nordisk we want to show the world what is possible with great diabetes control,” Southerland said to Cyclingnews. “Between us, Team Novo Nordisk has over 1,000 diagnosed years of diabetes with no complications and we stand for what life with diabetes can be like.”
The team was recently granted a Pro Continental licence for 2013 and lists the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the Tour of Britain and Paris-Tours among its programme for the coming season. As was the case under the auspices of Team Type 1, participation in the Tour de France remains a long-term objective of the team.
The overriding goal, Southerland explains, is to continue to provide “hope and inspiration” for people affected by diabetes. “Exercise is that billion dollar drug that nobody ever gets prescribed, and in my experience is the best of them all,” he said. “With appropriate diet, exercise, treatment and technology, anyone with diabetes can achieve their dreams.”
As well as supporting the Pro Continental team, Team Novo Nordisk will provide sponsorship to over 100 diabetic athletes, including a women’s team, triathletes and runners, and it plans to be a presence in over 500 sporting events across all disciplines next year.
In addition to gathering certain results, Phil wants the team to be able to encourage others to get involved in the cause too. “We hope to work with the race promoters to build diabetes awareness/educational campaigns in their respective countries, to ensure the races they work so hard on leave a long standing impact on the fans,” he said to Velo Nation.
“I strongly hope that our team, and Novo Nordisk coming to cycling, can be a strong side of how great this sport is,” he said. “We are in a new age of cycling, and we hope to be a strong part of building trust again with the fans and getting them back to the believers they once were.”
So how did I fill my days while in Spain? I rode my bike eleven days in a row, attended several business meetings and team presentations and I spent time with all team members getting to know them and learning about their own individual stories.
All of the riders on the team have diabetes which means they are regularly checking their glucose, both on and off the bike. If you ignore the glucose monitors and needles then there is no way to tell our team members have a chronic disease. We all pretty much have the same weight (but we do have different shapes as some of us are thin climbers and some are thin sprinters with big thighs), use the same bike, eat the same food and drink the same beer.
One thing that struck me about the members of Team Novo Nordisk is that although a lot of them are young (say 18 to 25) it comes naturally to them to look after each other. They don’t have individualistic personalities. They have a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. They are competitive and disciplined. They go out on the bike with a smile on their face and all of them expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to be part of a Pro cycling team. I noticed a lack of whining or complaining that is so frequent in young people.
One of the main reasons I went out riding with the team every day was to get a good sense for who they are, how they take care of themselves on the bike and “how real” is the premise that Team Novo Nordisk riders can be role models for people with diabetes and inspire people with diabetes to take control and live a normal life.
What I saw was a group of very competitive young riders who generally looked after each other and were living what looked like a pretty normal life to me. I left the camp convinced that the “inspire and empower” part of the team’s mission seems to have a very firm base to build from and now it’s all about executing and getting the team members to deliver the team’s message around the world.
But don’t get me wrong, you might get the sense that these riders are good people and they are, but they are tough athletes. When it is time to get on the bike and train, these guys clearly know that “the game is on”. Team Novo Nordisk is a professional cycling team and is run as such. Just like I never heard them complain about having diabetes they never complained about the long rides, the hard work, the pain and being away from home, in some cases, half-way around the globe.
Not only did I spend time with my “teammates” on the bike and in meetings but we also took the time to relax, walk around the old part of Alicante and grab the odd pizza.
In his book Phil explains how he once rode from Georgia to Florida to go visit his mom for Christmas and rode about 200 miles a day for a couple days. It is during that trip that the idea for Team Type 1, now Team Novo Nordisk, was born. He explains how he felt accomplishments on the bike could inspire people with diabetes to take control over their disease and live a normal life. I know he is right and the team of riders he has assembled has the right value system and motivation to deliver on that promise. None of the riders are “famous” but all of them are “significant”.
And Phil being relentless, I know he will get his team to the Tour de France by 2021, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. That is his big goal. Imagine the visibility for the cause when that happens. A kid whose mother was told he would be dead or blind by age 25 standing on the Champs d’Elysee at age 39 watching his team cross the finish line.
While 2012 might be remembered as the worst year on record for cycling it will also be viewed as the year that Phil Southerland and Team Type 1 launched a significant partnership with Novo Nordisk to become Team Novo Nordisk and really put diabetes on the political agenda and help shape policy change and truly inspire people with the disease.
On the opening night of the camp in Spain, Phil told his story to the team and while talking about the team’s amazing achievement of participating in and winning the Race Across America he described it as “the race that proves we could”. He then talked about the goal of participating in the Tour de France and described it as “the race that proves we can.”
In my address to the team, I told the riders about a great, unreleased song by U2 called Mercy. U2 only has played it live a few times. The definition of mercy is “an event to be grateful for because its occurrence prevents something unpleasant or provides relief from suffering.” And the lyrics go as this: “Because, because, because we can, we must.” Indeed.
Proud to be part of it.