Last updated: Sep 09, 2009
billie-jean
(LIFE.com)
Billie Jean King has faced some considerable challenges in her career and triumphed nearly every time. Shes won six individual Wimbledon and four U.S. Open titles, founded the Womens Tennis Association, beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, and came out of the closet while still on tour. Now that the 65-year-old former tennis star has been diagnosed with a life-altering disease—type 2 diabetes—she is, naturally, attacking at the net.


King is not only managing her own diabetes, but she is also active in the fight to raise awareness about the disease and is the spokesperson for the Face of Change campaign, a traveling photo exhibit that includes personal stories about diabetes.

Nearly 24 million people in the United States have diabetes, and 90% of them have the type 2 form of the disease. Unlike type 1, an autoimmune disease that requires daily insulin injections to survive, people with type 2 can sometimes keep their blood sugar in the safe range by careful eating (mostly by managing carbohydrate intake) and exercise. However, as the disease progresses, many people will need to take pills or insulin injections to keep their blood sugar from creeping into the danger zone.

King is plenty busy. Shes still active in tennis, blogging about current tournaments at World Team Tennis, an organization she helped found. (She recently compared Melanie Oudins run at the 2009 U.S. Open, which is being played at the national tennis center that bears Kings name, to Chris Everts 1971 U.S. Open Tournament.)

Still, King took time to sit down with Health.com to talk about her experiences with type 2 diabetes.

Q: Youve been living with type 2 diabetes for nearly two years. How has it changed your life?
A: Ive been really trying to cut down on [carbohydrates]. Im trying to pay attention to my intake. Because I love to eat. I just have to deal.

Q: Most people think type 2 diabetes can only strike obese people with a sedentary lifestyle—not world-class athletes. As an athlete, was your diabetes diagnosis a surprise?
A: No. I have type 1 diabetes in my family, even though type 1 is autoimmune and type 2 is more genetic. Ive known a lot about diabetes all my life. I had a friend in second grade, Fraser Brandt, and thats how I started to learn about the disease because he had to take injections. That was the early ‘50s. I started asking questions with him.

Anyone can develop diabetes, even an athlete. For example, the Novo Nordisk Donnelly Awards are grants given to four tennis kids with diabetes. Its fantastic. The awards are named after tennis players Diane Donnelly Stone and Tracey Donnelly Maltby, who both worked at World Team Tennis. Diane got type 1 when she was 6 and Tracey when she was 14. So I wanted to do something for them.

Diabetes is something thats been in my life and that now Im dealing with personally.


Q: How are you managing the disease?
A: I exercise a lot. I also find if I get enough sleep that helps me a lot because I dont eat as much. Obviously, getting exercise and taking my medication and testing my blood.

Q: How often do you test your blood sugar?
A: Fortunately, I only have to test about once or twice a day. My blood sugar is pretty good most of the time—if Im eating right, exercising, and taking my medication. [King takes metformin, one of the most commonly prescribed pills for diabetes.]

Q: Whats your exercise regime like?
A: I have weights at home and a stationary bike. Ill do the bike and Ill go to the gym. I have bad knees, so my days of heavy weight bearing are over. I try to do resistance training for my upper and lower body.

My goal is to get back on the tennis court. Im getting close. I had an operation last year and had to start over. I couldnt use my core for 10 weeks. Im getting to the point where I can finally get back to the tennis court. It absolutely makes me happy when I can hit the ball.

Tennis is so good for diabetes. Weve had several examples of professional tennis players with diabetes. Billy Talbert lived into his 80s. Ham Richardson lived into his 70s. They lived much longer than the normal lifespan for diabetics, I think, because of the tennis and taking good care of themselves. They never got overweight. And they were very conscientious. In doing so, they were great examples for all of us.

I just loved watching them play. In the old days, theyd change ends and theyd just guzzle down a Coke. Uh, oh, theyre blood sugar was low. It must have been such guesswork in those days compared to what we can do now.

Q: Whats the best advice youve gotten about diabetes?
A: Im 65 now and on Medicare. If youre that age, you qualify for a free diabetes test. Ask your doctor. I didnt know that. I think the main thing is getting everyone tested.

Q: Being a world-class athlete, did you find it ironic to get type 2 diabetes, a disease often associated with poor diet and exercise habits?
A: Not really. I have an eating disorder; I was a binge eater. I dont binge eat anymore, but for about 10 years, I was being very cruel to my poor little pancreas.

Then I also had diabetes in my family.

Q: Now that you have diabetes, are you concerned about other health issues?
A: Im worried about what it can do if I dont take care of myself. I know its the leading cause of blindness and I know there are other complications.

Q: Whats tougher—living with diabetes or beating Bobby Riggs?
A: [Laughing] That was a long time ago. That was over 35 years ago. I think its the daily thing of living with diabetes. Its been around me my whole life, people with type 1 and type 2. You can live a great life with the disease, but you have to pay attention and do the right things to manage it.

Q: Whats the hardest thing to adjust to living without?
A: Bagels. Id love to have bagels. But those are treats now. Portion control. Eat less, less often. I do a lot better when I dont eat something like a bagel every day. That kind of sets up my taste buds to want it.

The main thing is to get my exercise in. And I try to really enjoy my eating time. I try to eat slower. I used to eat really fast and I didnt know when I was full. So I really try to pay attention now.