It’s well-known that becoming an elite rugby player takes plenty of hard work, discipline and dedication. At the age of 19, Worcester Warriors full-back Chris Pennell discovered that he would have to overcome the additional challenge of type 1 diabetes in realising his dream of playing professional rugby.
The Worcester local has certainly risen to the challenge, establishing himself as one of the Premiership’s most consistent performers. Since making his debut for the Warriors against Bath a decade ago, the versatile back has made over 150 appearances for the club where he started his career.
A standout season in the 2013/2014 Aviva Premiership campaign saw him achieve a life dream when he was rewarded with a call-up to Stuart Lancaster’s England squad to tour New Zealand, resulting in his first international cap against the All Blacks at Eden Park.
Displaying a humility that is evident within minutes of meeting him, Pennell admits that he never believed that he would go on to achieve so much in his professional career.
“I feel incredibly lucky just to be paid to chuck a ball around with my mates every day – It’s an incredible job.
“I just thought that I would do this for a couple of years, enjoy the experience and then go off to university, so where I am now – it’s all a bit surreal when I really think back about everything that’s happened.”
Pennell had just started his second pre-season with the Aviva Premiership Club when he found out that he had type 1 diabetes. A routine blood test revealed that his blood glucose level was unnaturally high, indicating that his body was no longer producing the insulin it required.
He later recognised that he was exhibiting many of the tell-tale signs of type 1 diabetes, but confused them as long days of intense training taking their toll.
“All the main indicators were there – thirst, weight loss, hunger, passing out after a big meal – but I was in pre-season training so I didn’t think much about it. Of course I was going to be feeling all of those things.”
Unlike type 2 diabetes, which is generally associated with obesity and controlled with diet, type 1 requires frequent insulin doses. Its causes are still relatively unknown except for the fact that it is often inherited in families. As someone with no family history of the condition, and someone who spent most of his life playing rugby and cricket, Pennell’s case is a fine example of its unpredictable nature.
“There is no rhyme or reason why things like this happen – I was probably in the shape of my life when I found out,” says the former England international.
“It certainly came as a bit of a shock as I also had that misconception of it being a lifestyle thing.”
Although the information left Pennell fearing for his career, the initial phone conversation with late club doctor Terry Gasper, in addition to the discovery that others such as five-time Olympic Gold Medallist Sir Steve Redgrave had managed to succeed with the condition, reassured him that his dream of playing professional rugby didn’t have to end.
“His [Gasper’s] positivity from that first phone conversation kind of set the tone for my attitude towards diabetes,” recalls the 30-year-old. “It wasn’t blasé, but it was very much a case of ‘this is just something we’re going to have to manage but it’s not going to stop you achieving everything you want to achieve.’”
Although it is common for newly diagnosed people with type 1 diabetes to take a one-month break from sport and intense exercise, Pennell returned to training almost instantly, aided by the support and understanding of both the players and the staff at the club.
“I was told that it would be left into my hands, but that the resources were there if I needed them.
“That was exactly the right way to manage the situation,” he says. “I don’t like to be treated any differently, so that was good as it let me learn to deal with it in my own way.
“Loads of guys wanted to test their blood to see if they also had it, and a couple have freaked out when they’ve seen me inject,” he says struggling to hide his amusement. “But everyone I have played with has been great about it, they have all taken an interest in the condition and what they need to do to help me.”
The same hard work and persistence which has allowed the 30-year-old to excel on the rugby pitch have also allowed him to get the condition under good control.
In addition to gathering information from books and websites, the full-back’s determination to reduce the condition’s impact on his life, and his rugby, took him to Dr Ian Gallen, one of the leading lights on diabetes in sport.
“I don’t like to be bad at anything,” he explains, “so like school and rugby before, I wanted to become as good at managing it as possible – That started with learning as much as I could.”
The challenge of maintaining good blood sugar levels has the potential to impact the performance of any sportsperson, with low sugars (or hypos) proving a significant risk to the health of people with the condition.
However, Pennell claims that the added responsibility of having to keep his diabetes well-controlled has helped him in his rugby career
“I have to be so strict and aware of what I’m putting into my body on training days because I have to think about what training we have next and what that food will do to my sugars,” he explains.
“There’s quite a close link – Those small decisions end up making a big difference both with my diabetes and my rugby. My diabetes will often stop me from doing things which I might regret later on the rugby pitch – I might fancy another bowl of porridge but it might not necessarily be the right thing to do.”
Pennell’s intense day-to-day training routine, along with sensible food choices and regular blood testing (up to 12 times on a training day), has allowed him to largely control his diabetes with diet, reducing the number of daily insulin injections he requires. While it is common for most people with type 1 diabetes to inject insulin between four and five times a day, the 30-year-old will rarely inject more than twice-a-day during the Aviva Premiership season.
Nevertheless, due to the unstable and unpredictable nature of type 1 diabetes, it is impossible to completely master it, with Pennell admitting that he still occasionally struggles.
“It can be incredibly frustrating”, he says with a faint smile. “There are times when things are running so smoothly that you think you’ve got it nailed, but then out of nowhere, there’s a curveball. Suddenly your blood sugars are incredibly high and you don’t have an explanation.”
“That’s when you get frustrated, angry, and then a little bit resentful about the whole thing – None of us likes to be out of control, especially when it’s something we put so much time and effort into.”
Fortunately, in addition to the support he has received from everyone at Worcester, Pennell has been able to rely on support at home in the form of wife Jo. In their eight years together, the Worcester star says that she has been on hand to offer help whenever he’s needed it.
“She’s been awesome,” says the father of two. “She’s probably as clued up as I am, which is great as she understands some of the frustrations and she knows what to do whenever I’m in trouble.
“Like me, she tries not to see it as a big deal, just that it’s a part of life we have to deal with – She’s also Glaswegian so I get no sympathy whatsoever,” he adds laughing.
In addition to starring in on the field, the Warriors centurion has also used his own life experiences to represent the club off the pitch and was voted the Aviva Premiership Community Player of the Season last month.
Much of Pennell’s work in the community revolves around type 1 diabetes. As an ambassador for Diabetes UK, he spends a lot of time meeting young people with the condition and relaying the same positive messages he received from Terry Gasper a decade ago.
“In my head, a childhood should be done in a certain way,” he continues. “If you are at a kid’s birthday party and the jelly and ice cream comes out, you should just be able to tuck in without worrying about blood glucose levels.
“When I meet younger kids, I almost feel like I’m lucky to have been diagnosed later on,” he admits. “I have huge amounts of respect for the parents and youngsters out there who have to deal with these kinds of challenges and don’t let it prevent them from doing what they want.”
The 30-year-old hopes to increase his involvement with the charity once his rugby career comes to an end, admitting that he is already starting to think about retirement and the new challenges it will bring in dealing with his diabetes.
“I think it will be similar to how it was when I first started, and I’ll have to learn through experience.
“I’m going to have to learn to live with my diabetes in a different role and lifestyle, and when that challenge comes, I’ll be ready to deal with it and to be good at it again.”