Basketball, Football, and Diabetes

Insulin Nation is featuring five profiles of female athletes with Type 1 diabetes who thrive at their sport. Each profile is excerpted from Judith Jones Ambrosini’s book “The Sisterhood of Diabetes: Facing Challenges and Living Dreams”.

IMG_326990584671159_300pxWhen you are 5’11” and a competitive varsity basketball player, injuries are bound to be part of the game. Shaakira Hassell’s junior year at Beloit College was one of those stress-riddled times. In the fall of 1998, Shaakira ruptured her right Achilles tendon during practice and needed serious reconstructive surgery.

During the period of recovery, she did some research and learned that Australia was one of the top countries emerging in the field of exercise science. It also had some of the top women’s pro-basketball teams. After hearing this, Shaakira created an interdisciplinary sports-science major, including a study abroad program in Australia.

During the summer before leaving for Australia, Shaakira began to feel fatigued all the time. She also experienced extreme thirst. She attributed it to the intensity of her power workouts. But during a physical exam, a urine analysis showed an unusually high level of ketones, a possible indicator of diabetes. This news called for major rebellion. Shaakira left the exam and bought a supersized bag of Sugar Babies, which she proceeded to munch her way through as she drove home.

Over the next few days Shaakira’s thirst became unbearable and her clothes seemed to hang off her. Worried, she went to see her primary physician, who took another urine sample and blood tests which showed a 540 blood sugar. The doctor was puzzled about what kind of diagnosis to give, as she felt Shaakira was too old to be Type 1 and didn’t have typical Type 2 characteristics. The doctor recommended experimenting with both insulin and pills to discover which would work better. She administered a dose of insulin and gave Shaakira a prescription for meds. About an hour later, Shaakira experienced her first hypoglycemic reaction as she waited in line at the pharmacy.

But Shaakira was an athlete! She didn’t want to become a diabetic who plays sports. For her, sports were a lifestyle, and she would have to figure out how to merge her competitive nature as a basketball player with the overwhelming diagnosis of diabetes. And doctors kept telling her she would have to give up intensive training to accommodate the condition. She refused to listen.

“I have been an athlete all my life, so the diagnosis was a harsh blow to me,” she says. “I didn’t know how to manage or live with it and still compete.”

Once in Australia, Shaakira acquired a tryout with the Melbourne Tigers. Later, she was drafted for the U.S. Virgin Islands National Basketball summer tournament in 2001. A day before reporting to the U.S. Virgin Islands, she decided to play one more pick-up game in Chicago; she sprained her ankle during the game. It was a hard blow for Shaakira to take after she had worked so hard to get to this point. The injuries, and her struggles to stay healthy with Type 1 diabetes, left her feeling depressed.

“Everyone has their own cross to bear; diabetes happens to be mine,” she says. “I used to ask God, ‘Why me? Lord, why me?’ until I heard His response: ‘Why not you? Who else better than you?’”

She didn’t give up, but instead picked up a pair of cleats and joined the Chicago Force of the women’s professional tackle football team. To her own surprise, she fell in love with the competitive team sport of football and it soon consumed her heart and thoughts.

TheSisterhoodOfDiabetes_BookCover_300pxLuckily, while Shaakira was in Chicago, she caught wind about the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association, and she attended a conference at the University of Chicago. There she met Dr. Matt Corcoran, who listened to her and understood the complications of managing blood sugars with sports. Shaakira realized that denying and rebelling against diabetes would get her in more trouble, so she began to come to terms with trying to manage and control it. Dr. Corcoran worked with her and gave her the confidence to pursue limitless possibilities in sports while at the same time managing her diabetes. He even supported her by attending her football games when she played for the Chicago Force.

After Chicago, Shaakira moved to Georgia to work in the field of sports science and attain a Master’s Degree in Health and Physical Education from Valdosta University. She then took a position at Troy University in Alabama, as assistant coach for Speed, Strength and Conditioning. She also continued her football career with the Atlantic Ravens during the summer season of 2006, playing defensive end and defensive tackle. By 2010, Shaakira had earned her second Master’s Degree in Sports Administration at Troy, where she still works today.

Despite several bouts with diabetic ketoacidosis in 2010, Shaakira has pulled through. She recently reconnected with Dr. Corcoran to fine-tune her insulin regimen and smooth out her managing skills. A renewed faith and confidence in managing diabetes and living as a power athlete is winning out.

“Type 1 diabetes isn’t who I am,” she says. “It’s a part of the many things that I will overcome.”

If you would like to purchase the book “The Sisterhood of Diabetes: Facing Challenges and Living Dreams”, go to


Editor’s note: We have not yet been able to obtain a photo of Ms. Hassell, so a stock photo has been used instead. Neither of the women pictured are Ms. Hassell.

Judith Jones Ambrosini has lived with Type 1 diabetes since 1962. She believes that diabetes has led her to becoming a professional chef, a competitive distance walker, and a diabetes journalist. She has been a board member of the American Diabetes Association and the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Associations.

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