Nathan Hendricks – Hard work pays off

Nathan Hendricks will be competing in the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. We catch up with the young swimmer to find out what this great achievement means to him.


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Nathan Hendricks (18) lives in Middelburg, Mpumalanga with his parents, Darryl and Jennifer. He has five siblings.

Despite not having the easiest start to life – being diagnosed with diabetes as a baby and then diagnosed with Stargardt disease – macular dystrophy at the age of 12 – Nathan depicts joy. He answers every question with the most mature mindset and is very humble. A playful relationship with his father is evident while admiring respect is given to his mother.

“I never had self-pity, I grew up with diabetes and made the decision that I wouldn’t allow it to limit me. Then when I lost my eye sight, I never saw it as a bad thing, it actually helped me get closer to my family as my mother had to read for me and my dad had to help me with a lot of other things. I also believe God gave it to me for a reason so I’m going to find that reason,” Nathan says.

Type 1 diagnosis

At just eight months old, Nathan was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. This came after he was urinating a lot; a GP treated him with antibiotics for a bladder infection. Though, it didn’t help so his mother, Jennifer, took him to a hospital where a paediatrician diagnosed him with diabetes. He was treated with insulin and his parents took him to Johannesburg for a consultation with a paediatric endocrinologist.

“For the first six months, we injected him mainly in the buttocks but then the endocrinologist suggested that he start insulin pump therapy. Nathan was actually one of the first babies to be on an insulin pump. Up until the age of 16 or 17, he was using the insulin pump,” Jennifer explains.

Nathan stopped using the pump due to swimming. “Because I was in the water for a long periods of time (two and a half hours) without the pump, I wasn’t getting a good flow of insulin. So, I started injecting long-acting insulin to sustain me while swimming but now I inject both long- and short-acting insulin as I find it’s the best way for me to have good management,” Nathan says.

Stargardt disease – macular dystrophy

Then at the age of 12, Nathan was diagnosed Stargardt disease – macular dystrophy, a genetic eye disorder that causes progressive vision loss, mainly affecting central vision loss.

“We discovered that I was struggling to see when we sat at the dinner table. Instead of looking straight at a person, I would either look just above their head or to the side, so I could picture their face better. I went to an optometrist and was given the strongest lenses but still couldn’t see. We then consulted an ophthalmologist and he then diagnosed me with Stargardt disease – macular dystrophy,” Nathan says.

“Stargardt has nothing to do with my diabetes, it’s genetic. However, uncontrolled glucose levels can cause further damage but I’m proud to say that my ophthalmologist says there is no sign of diabetic damage.”

Unfortunately, there is no cure or current treatment for Stargardt disease. However, various gene and drug research trials are underway. To slow the vision loss down, Nathan reduces his vitamin A intake.

“There is a possibility that as I get older, I may become completely blind but it’s not a definite,” Nathan says.

Education

Nathan attended primary school and his parents would explain his diabetes to every new teacher he got, educating them on highs and lows and what to do in those instances. “At first the teachers were scared of the responsibility but as the years went by, it became a non-issue,” Darryl says.

Nathan then started high school but in Grade 9, his parents made the decision that home-schooling would be better for him due to him struggling to see the white board. It has been a good move as Nathan is doing extremely well academically and hopes to further his studies in particle physics.

A love for swimming

When asked when his skill for swimming was discovered, Nathan humbly says that he doesn’t see himself as being talented but rather that he has a love for swimming.

“When I joined my swimming club, I would lose to girls who were three years younger than me. But I kept on training, putting in the work in for my stroke correction and eventually I became good at it and was invited to Senior Nationals and competitions overseas,” Nathan says.

Darryl adds that when Nathan was in primary school he encouraged his son to keep on practising and eventually he would win races. “And that happened, even though his first swimming teacher said he would never be a swimmer. Nathan is disciplined; he doesn’t miss any training and as the years went by, the more races he won. In 2020, Nathan qualified to swim in a Level 2 competition, but it was cancelled due to COVID.”

Darryl continues, “When Nathan joined the swimming club, I told his coach that our goal is for him to compete in the Paralympics as he qualifies as a S13 swimmer due to having Stargardt disease. The coach looked at me incredulously but a few months later, Nathan was invited to swim in a Level 3 competition and he made the final of the 100m backstroke and from then, he just kept on going, and now he is one of the top swimmers in the club.”

Nathan is an all-rounder and is good at all four strokes but his top two strokes are 400m freestyle and 100m backstroke. “Surprisingly, I have an African record for breaststroke, which is my least favourite.”

Breathing techniques to regulate emotions

If Nathan has low blood glucose levels while training, he can feel it as he gets very tired; he then immediately gets out of the pool. Though, he says if his levels are high, he can continue to swim for a while.

He admits that emotions during galas play a huge factor in his management and extreme highs and lows. “We noticed my glucose levels were very high before a race. No matter if we increased the insulin dosage, it stayed high. Then after a race, I would go into an extreme low and had to pull out of races that were straight after. After consulting with my endocrinologist, he confirmed that adrenalin was the cause of these rollercoaster glucose levels,” Nathan explains.

Nathan consulted a sports psychologist who taught him breathing techniques to do before a race which helps him stay more calm. He also follows a daily six-meal plan to help curb these highs and lows during races and has to take a certain amount of carbs just before races and thereafter.

Keeping colds and flu at bay

With preparations for the upcoming Paralympics underway, Nathan’s schedule is jammed-pack with 10 training sessions a week, which includes two gym sessions and a total of four hours in the pool a day and 60km+ of swimming a week, as well as home-schooling.

To keep the colds and flu at bay in winter, Nathan’s coach keeps him in his own swimming lane during training. Jennifer adds that their family become hermits in winter and stay indoors to keep all the germs away.

Nathan adds that he does test more during winter to just keep an eye on his glucose levels; this is to ensure his body isn’t put through unnecessary strain.

Road to Paralympics

Nathan says he is very excited to take part in the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games as it has always been one of his goals. “I’m so honoured to represent my country and it’s a beautiful flag to hold up. There are many people that are looking up to me now, especially in my province, so I’m going to do well not only for myself but for everyone who is supporting me.”

We wish Nathan all best and look forward to seeing him make more of his goals come true.

Nathan Hendricks
Nathan Hendricks

I also believe God gave it to me for a reason so I’m going to find that reason.”

Nathan Hendricks
Nathan Hendricks
Laurelle Williams is the Editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Feel free to email Laurelle on editor@diabetesfocus.co.za

MEET THE EDITOR


Laurelle Williams is the Editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Feel free to email Laurelle on [email protected]


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