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Spotlight: Racing Sydney to Hobart with Diabetes, MS and Graves’ Disease

Poolside’s Spotlight series puts the focus on inspirational people, setting out to make a difference.

The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is one of the most challenging offshore classic races in sailing. The 630 nautical miles (1,158km) has become an icon of Australia’s summer sport, where teams battle tough and uncertain conditions over two days across the Bass Strait.

Sydney-based Liz Cooke was one of 120 teams taking part this year. But aside from being a mother, a wife, and a sailor, she’s also battling diabetes, MS and Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disease that causes your thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone.

This week for our Spotlight series we spoke to Liz on how she stays motivated, inspired, and how she’s now got her sights on her next goal - sailing around the world.

Liz said: “It has been 22 years since my first attempt to do the Sydney to Hobart race. In 2001, my husband and I got onto yachts to go to Hobart, but my opportunity didn’t work out. It’s a big thing to try and get on a boat for Hobart because you have to prove yourself to a skipper and crew, as well as attending all the training sessions and completing the sea safety courses.”

But this year that all changed for Liz, determined to not be held back by her conditions. She successfully completed the race and rode acoss the finish line in what's considered as one of the most difficult yacht races in the world.

“There was a moment when we arrived at the dock in Hobart. We were coming around, standing on the yacht and the dock was full of people cheering us on, tourists and locals alike. And when I say cheering, the people were clapping and cheering for us. I was the only female on the crew and there was a young girl on the dock and when she saw me, she yelled “I got you girl.”  

“This is the only yacht race in the world where this happens; it was amazing and very special. What made it even more special was that my daughter had flown in to meet us as well.”

“For me, I am determined to not be defined by my conditions. There is a lot more to me than just my diabetes, my MS and my Graves. I am a woman, a mother, a wife, and a sailor. I would encourage others not to be defined by their condition. We can make the most of all our opportunities. It’s a mindset! But it’s not easy to get to that place and it has taken me time to be able to get here, to work it out and not be defined by it.”

Technology made the race possible for Liz this year. Thanks to advancements in diabetes technology, Liz was able to compete in the race using a Continuous Glucose Monitor.  Previously, and without such technology, this would have been impossible as race entrants are unable to run a fingerpick test and check glucose levels on a fast-moving yacht across the Bass Strait. 

Liz added: “I use a Dexcom G6 and it was an invaluable tool for me to achieve my Hobart race goal. I genuinely don’t think I could have done the Hobart race without it. I can't imagine trying to manage my glucose levels without my CGM to provide that reassurance that I was ok during the times I may have been feeling a little off. With the ability to check my number at any time, I was always able to manage my sugars, eat something when needed and determine if I was just feeling the normal stresses of the race or if I was going low or high and respond accordingly. 

“My Dexcom was my Guardian Angel -  I definitely could not have completed the race without it.”
The Sydney to Hobart race isn’t the first time Liz has faced her conditions head on. Reflecting on some of her greatest accomplishments, Liz said: “One of my greatest achievements was doing the MS Gong (Wollongong) Ride Race the year after I got diagnosed with MS in 2013. I crossed the finish line in tears because it was just so emotional. This is a disease that was supposed to have me in a wheelchair within the next ten years and I was able to accomplish that race and now setting the goal and achieving a finish at the Sydney to Hobart despite the MS and the diabetes (and the Graves) - I am very proud of this.”
For others facing similar health conditions, Liz doesn’t want these conditions to define you. “Be the person who you want to be and then health challenges can fit in around it. It really shouldn't be about just your diabetes or your MS or Graves or whatever it is, it should be about you as a person and your aspirations and passions and finding those passions and following those dreams.”

“I set goals and try to look forward to the next five years and say ‘right, what is it that I want to achieve?’. In the future my husband and I are planning to go sailing around the world. I've got some health challenges, so it might end up being the Pacific rather than the world but that's okay. We have a goal, and it might have to be adapted slightly, but the point is, if you don't have a goal, or you don't look to the future and have plans, then it may be hard to keep motivated.”

And for experiences of failure, Liz views these all as learnings. “Failure is important and is a positive thing as you have to learn from your failures. You learn from mistakes, and I think failure has such a negative connotation, but it doesn't need to. Failures can be a motivator and an opportunity to self-reflect, make adjustments and do things differently. Failure builds character and it’s in those moments when I look back that were the hardest times, but also the ones that most helped me grow the most as a person.”

“I want to show others what’s possible. I see myself as following my dreams and passions and setting goals to achieve them. I think everyone can be an inspiration to others, it’s just about finding your own passion and finding what motivates you.”


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