Sean Busby was on his way to becoming an Olympic snowboarder when he fell ill.

He eventually was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which didn't stop him from snowboarding, but did lead him to backcountry snowboarding.

Since his diagnosis 10 years ago, Busby, who now lives in Whitefish, has become the first person with type 1 diabetes to backcountry snowboard on all seven continents.

"This has been something I have been working toward for years, to prove to myself and the world that type 1 diabetes can't hold anyone back from accomplishing their goals," Busby said.

Olympic dreams

Busby, who grew up in southern California, began snowboarding when he was 12. Around the age of 16 he started to compete professionally.

In 2004, Busby was in the middle of a snowboarding tour when he got sick to his stomach. Some of his teammates recently had returned from competing overseas, so he figured he caught a stomach bug from them.

However, his symptoms didn't go away. While at the National Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., Busby began vomiting uncontrollably for hours on end.

He continued to compete, but by the end of the season things started to fall apart.

"I was constantly thirsty," he said.

He was training in Steamboat, Colo., and every day after practice he'd buy a gallon jug of grape juice, guzzle it down in an attempt to quench his thirst and then vomit it up.

On his first trip to the emergency room, he left with the diagnosis of a stomach bug. Over the next nine days, he went to the emergency room seven times and was admitted with severe pneumonia on the seventh visit.

He returned to California to see a doctor near where his parents lived, and was misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

A misdiagnosis

While type 1 and type 2 diabetes share a similar name, they are very different diseases.

"They're essentially two completely different diseases that share the same name," Busby said.

In type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent diabetes, the body's immune system destroys the cells that release insulin, eventually eliminating insulin production from the body. Without insulin, cells cannot absorb sugar (glucose), which they need to produce energy.

Before insulin was discovered, patients with type 1 diabetes would just waste away while they essentially starved.

Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset diabetes, can develop at any age. Type 2 diabetes accounts for the vast majority of people who have diabetes - 90 to 95 percent.

In type 2 diabetes, the body isn't able to use insulin the right way. This is called insulin resistance. As type 2 diabetes gets worse, the pancreas may make less and less insulin. This is called insulin deficiency.

Because of his age, doctors assumed Busby had type 2 diabetes. Because he wasn't prescribed insulin he continued to be ill.

"Basically I was starving to death," he said.

Busby lost more 30 pounds and sponsors started to drop him.

"One of my sponsors said they didn't want to support an athlete that was chronically sick," Busby said.

Depressed and still sick, Busby didn't know what to do. He thought maybe if he went back to Colorado and started snowboarding again, he would somehow start to feel better.

Recovery

Boarding a plane back to Colorado, Busby, then 19, passed out. He was taken to a teaching hospital where doctors diagnosed him with type 1 diabetes and immediately gave him insulin.

"That first shot of insulin was the most amazing feeling I had ever felt in my entire life," he said.

As Busby recovered, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to continue snowboarding. He lost so much muscle mass and had to relearn how his body reacted to exercise.

"I had been an athlete all my life," Busby said.

He gradually began to move away from competitive snowboarding and started exploring backcountry snowboarding.

While training competitively, Busby had lived with a family in British Columbia who were avid backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

"They were the ones that essentially introduced me to that side of the sport," he said.

Busby liked the calm of the backcountry, and he liked that he had to "earn his turns." Rather than ride a chair lift, he had to hike to the top of a mountain under his own power.

"It was the freedom, the connection to the mountain," he said. "There's just no other feeling like that."

In the backcountry he also could feel the presence of his brother who had passed away in high school.

"When I was out in the backcountry, away from the ski resort, I found this connection to my brother," Busby said.

He started traveling to New Zealand to snowboard, and then had the opportunity to go to Antarctica.

"That's where I fell head-over-heals for that side of the sport," he said. "As you're skinning up, you look side to side and there would be thousands and thousands of penguins."

Learning to manage his disease

Diabetes has posed challenges in Busby's backcountry expeditions, but he's learned to manage it, even in the most remote settings.

"If something went wrong in Antarctica, I might as well be on the moon," he said.

Busby used to take six to eight insulin injections every day, but carrying that medicine with him in the backcountry and keeping it from freezing is problematic.

"I couldn't afford to have stuff freeze because it's my lifeline," he said.

He now uses an OmniPod Insulin Management System, a tubeless insulin pump that is attached to his body and holds and delivers insulin on a programed schedule.

"It has allowed me to travel the world without having to take multiple injections every day or worry about getting tangled with tubing or having my insulin freeze while on an expedition," he said.

A goal to snowboard around the world

Busby was doing more and more backcountry snowboarding and traveling to exotic places.

"I love going and exploring these remote wildernesses," he said.

He realized the hardest continent to get to was Antarctica, and he'd already been there twice, so he decided to set a goal to go backcountry snowboarding on each continent.

He completed that goal in February, checking Africa off the list with a trip to Morocco.

He's also snowboarded extensively throughout New Zealand, traveled to Tasmania, Australia; Norway's Lyngen Alps; Kyrgyzstan; Japan; Patagonia in South America; and throughout the Canadian Yukon, Newfoundland and the United States.

His favorite place has been Antarctica, followed by Norway.

"We went up about 200 kilometers above the Arctic Circle," he said of a trip to Norway. "We had 24 hours of daylight."

Busby would begin climbing a mountain at 10 p.m. and finish at 3 a.m.

"We had beautiful weather and we were up in these beautiful fjords," he said. "It was just an amazing trip."

Giving back

Not long after his diagnosis, Busby wanted to find a way to give back to the diabetes community.

He established Riding on Insulin, originally hosting ski and snowboard camps for kids with diabetes. During the camps, he'd teach kids about managing the disease at high altitudes and during exercise, as well as in different climates and humidity.

Today, along with skiing and snowboarding, Riding on Insulin offers road biking and BMX programs as well. The nonprofit has expanded to working with adults and siblings of kids with diabetes.

"Riding on Insulin takes place in four different countries," Busby said.

Camps are held in Montana at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Busby now offers backcountry snowboarding camps. He recently returned from a camp in Colorado where he took clients with type 1 diabetes into the backcountry and shared with them what he has learned about managing his disease.

About a year ago, Busby and his wife Mollie moved to Whitefish, where Riding on Insulin is now based.

Riding on Insulin aims to give people the confidence to manage diabetes in different environments.

"We want them to basically empower themselves to come away with new ways with how they manage their disease," Busby said.

At the same time, the program aims to help people build a network and meet others who are facing the same challenges.

"Any chronic disease plays a significant role on a person's emotions," he said. "The next best medicine to insulin is actually community, having people around me who understand what I'm going through."

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Erin Madison at 791-1466 or emadison@greatfalls- tribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @GFTrib_EMadison.


Learn more

Riding on Insulin - ridingoninsulin.org

Sean Busby's personal blog - twosticksandaboard.com

OmniPod, the tubeless insulin pump Busby uses - myomnipod.com

Stories of others with diabetes and information and starting a diabetes support group - suited.myomnipod.com.

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