Teen will ride unicycle 27 miles to fight diabetes

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoVancouver resident Michael Smith, 16, rides his unicycle in front of his family’s home Wednesday. Smith, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes two years ago, will ride 27 miles on his unicycle for an American Diabetes Association fundraiser Saturday.

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More than 1,000 people will ride on two wheels to participate in the American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure this Saturday in Hillsboro, Ore.

Vancouver 16-year-old Michael Smith, however, will ride on one wheel.

The Heritage High School junior will climb atop his unicycle, which has a 36-inch wheel, and ride 27 miles to raise money and awareness for the national organization.

“It’s a cause that hits kind of close to home,” Smith said.

He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in April 2009.

After feeling sleepy and extraordinarily thirsty for a few weeks, Smith’s parents took him to see his physician. Smith’s doctor sent him to The Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, where the teen was diagnosed with diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is a disease that occurs when a person’s pancreas does not produce enough insulin to properly control blood-sugar levels.

The diagnosis has meant Smith has to pay careful attention to his diet and monitor his blood-sugar levels.

He rotates between insulin injections and an insulin pump to maintain healthy insulin levels. When he’s using injections, Smith sticks himself with a needle multiple times a day.

The diagnosis hasn’t slowed the teen down, though. Since the diagnosis, Smith has earned his black belt in Kajukenbo, taken up unicycle riding and will begin taking classes at Clark College this fall through the Running Start program.

Smith is among the nearly 26 million Americans with diabetes. In Oregon and Southwest Washington, about 343,500 people have the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association.

The association’s Tour de Cure events are held across the country to help raise money and awareness for diabetes.

This is the third year of the local Tour de Cure event, which offers five different courses ranging from 5 to 100 miles. The courses take riders through the Willamette Valley’s rolling hills, vineyards, farms and hazelnut orchards.

So far, area residents have raised more than $236,000. Smith has rounded up $320, smashing his original fundraising goal of $150.

Saturday’s event will be a first for Smith. He’s never participated in the diabetes fundraiser — or any event, for that matter — on a unicycle. He only learned of the event a few months ago when he saw a flyer for the event in his endocrinologist’s office.

At the time, Smith had just upgraded to a bigger unicycle with the larger, 36-inch wheel. Now he’s had 2½ months to practice and train on the bigger unicycle.

Earlier this week, he completed 17- and 21-mile practice rides to prepare for Saturday’s event.

“As long as I don’t pass out, I’m good,” Smith said. “I’m confident I can do it.”

Smith’s dad, also Michael Smith, said he’s proud of his son’s commitment to the event and the cause.

“I’m totally proud of him. Twenty-seven miles on a unicycle, there’s no gears on it,” the elder Michael Smith said. “Like he said, it’s a cause that hits close to home. It’s investing in his future.”

Not only is Smith investing in his future, he’s doing it a unique way.

“As far as I know, I’m the only one doing it on a unicycle,” he said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.