By Bryant Drayton
For VCU Women's Soccer sophomore forward Julia Suarez, snacks and juice boxes are essential to her health, a fact her coaches and teammates have grown to understand.
"I always have snacks, and my teammates jokingly make fun of me," Suarez said laughing. "It's a good laugh. We try to keep positive."
When she was 14, Suarez started to feel lethargic in class and in soccer practice. Suarez assumed it was the flu or a common cold she couldn't shake. But after a month of dealing with sluggishness, she scheduled a doctor's visit.
A blood test revealed Suarez had developed type 1 diabetes, commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes. She was admitted to the hospital for treatment.
"I stayed in the hospital for four days and doctors were teaching me all of this new stuff while I was there," Suarez said.
In type 1 diabetes, a person's pancreas does not produce enough a hormone called insulin. The body uses insulin to move glucose, i.e. sugar, into your tissues to use as fuel. Without insulin, the body's cells starve, and glucose builds up your blood (high blood sugar), which can lead to ketoacidosis, as well as number of other long-term issues related to blood vessel damage. Diabetics, especially athletes, are also at risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can lead to diabetic shock, a potentially life-threatening event.
In the hospital, Suarez was fitted with an insulin pump and learned how to monitor her blood sugar levels. For the rest of her life, it would be up to her to safely manage her blood sugar through a careful balance of insulin, activity and proper diet.
Despite her diagnosis, Suarez traveled to Florida just a few days later with her club team, SYC Xtreme, for a tournament. Although she admits her performance wasn't up to par because of a lack of sleep, her mindset never wavered. She was not going to let diabetes slow her down.
Over the years, Suarez has become comfortable managing her diabetes, despite the additional challenges her high-intensity soccer career has presented. She says she can count on one hand the number of times where her health was in question during competition.
But here was a time last season when she struggled to exert herself the way she normally could. Suarez, who has to remove her insulin pump for practices and games, normally aims to keep her blood sugar level around 100. That day, she says it had plummeted to 25. She says the moment was a reminder of importance of proper food consumption prior to practice and competition. On a day like that, juice boxes and snacks can become literal lifesavers for Suarez.
For the most part, Suarez says, her diabetes is a non-factor in her daily life as a student-athlete. Managing her condition has become second nature. For that reason, VCU Coach Lindsay Martin says she rarely has to worry about Suarez's diabetes.
"From a coaching perspective we trust her to take care of her own body," Martin said. "It's really a matter of food and beverage consumption, rather than over running or over training."
Martin has reason to trust Suarez. As a freshman in 2015, the former C.D. Hylton High School star, who chose VCU after receiving interest from Richmond, Maryland and Florida, racked up a team-high eight goals and 20 points. For her efforts, Suarez landed spots on the Atlantic 10 Conference's Second Team, as well as its All-Rookie squad.
This summer, Suarez and her sister, Carmen, who plays at Howard, competed together with the Peruvian National Team program. The sisters' mother is Peruvian. Carmen tried out for the U-23 squad, while Julia vied for a spot on the U-20 team.
Julia's showing no signs of slowing down as a sophomore. Suarez has recorded two goals and a pair of assists this season, and is tied for the team lead with six points.
It doesn't appear diabetes has blunted Suarez's potential. Although she's not quite halfway through her sophomore season, Suarez is already knocking on the top 10 of VCU's career goals list.
"I think she could play professionally and go on to win A-10 Player of the Year while she's here," Martin said. "We have high hopes for her, with the ability she has, the sky is the limit for her."
Armed with an uncommon set of skills and a backpack full of juice boxes, Suarez's future looks pretty sweet.