Oconomowoc senior Michels hurdles diabetes, competition
There would be no spring break vacation for the Michels family this year.
Though the Oconomowoc natives, including OHS senior Shawn Michels, typically take a pilgrimage somewhere to kick off spring, it was understood that Shawn would stay home this year so he could compete in the Wisconsin Little Ten indoor meet, held April 4 in the middle of the school's spring recess.
"They know I'm really into track, and if they would have said they were going on vacation, I would have tried to stay home by myself," Michels said. "I knew it was going to be really hard to win, because we were missing a lot of our top athletes; we needed every person possible to be there."
Sure enough, it paid dividends. Michels became the first Oconomowoc athlete to win three individual events in years at the WLT gathering at Watertown, and the Raccoons won the championship by 20 points over Wisconsin Lutheran. After runnerup finishes in 2009, 2011 and 2012, the Raccoons had finally broken through.
Michels became the first athlete to win three individual events at the indoor meet since Sean Kennedy of Wisconsin Lutheran in 2008. His win in the 200 (24.46 seconds), 400 (54.09) and 55 hurdles (8.24) accounted for 30 of his team's 131.50 points.
"The 400 and 200 is a tough double," coach Todd Irvine said. "It's a testament to the work that he's done in the offseason. He's going to (the University of Wisconsin in) Madison to hurdle, and he's really dedicated himself to getting stronger and faster."
That dedication has been especially crucial for Michels, who isn't just battling the competition when he launches off the starting blocks.
A couple months before his junior track season, Michels was struggling in an advanced fitness class, which didn't make sense for someone with his athleticism.
"I felt like complete crap; I was just horrible," Michels said. "Lifting, I was getting weaker and getting winded. Our worst sprinters on varsity were beating me. I went to the doctors and checked my blood sugar, and they found I had diabetes."
The diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes - a malady of unclear origin that affects otherwise perfectly healthy people - meant his body wasn't synthesizing insulin properly, a problem corrected with regular injections of the hormone. Michels missed early weeks of training but quickly developed a schedule that allowed him to compete.
"It was a real battle figuring out how to balance the glucose and everything," Irvine said. "He's such a disciplined kid from a nutrition standpoint and how hard he has to work to manage his body. … Sports are such a huge part of his life. It's something that requires a lot of extra attention because he trains at a high level."
He finished the year fourth in the 110-meter hurdles at the state meet in La Crosse and seventh in the 300 hurdles. He'll be one of the favorites in both events this season, as well.
"The biggest problem I'm having is before races, I get a rush of adrenaline, and that spikes your blood sugar up," Michels said. "I try to correct it with insulin. It takes a while to act sometimes, so when I'm trying to get out of the blocks, I'm slower than everybody because I'm not as strong as I should be. I haven't figured it all out yet."
If he's still figuring it out, that's a scary proposition for the competition. As one of the centerpieces on a team that could legitimately contend for the Division 1 state title, Michels will compete in his hurdles specialties against a loaded field, including Kettle Moraine's Alex Sharrock (reigning 300 champion) and Daurice Fountain of Madison Memorial (third in 110s, second behind Sharrock on state honor roll in 55 hurdles).
"Hurdles is such a technical event," Irvine said. "There's going to be an error here and there (that costs someone a state title). Certainly he's a kid that's worked hard for the right to contend for it. You have a kid returning that wasn't that far off the state record, and you have to believe he can push for the state record, but Shawn can run that fast as well."
Michels, who holds the school records in the 200 and both hurdles events ("He's just a beast," Irvine said), said he's listened to speeches by Jay Hewitt, a Team USA Ironman Triathlete also afflicted with diabetes.
"There are a lot of professional athletes that are diabetic," Michels said. "I looked at symptoms online. It didn't just all hit me at once; I sort of knew I was going to have it (once symptoms started showing up). It was just really weird thinking I have diabetes, because I'm healthy and all that."
Wisconsin tight end Jacob Byrne, who capped his football career in 2011, is another diabetes patient. Michels will follow in Byrne's footsteps in Badgers athletics, beginning next year.
"He did basically a year-round running and training system, UW-Madison's offseason program," Irvine said. "He had done a camp there, and since he's going there to run next year … basically the day after the state track meet last year, he started, and his goal was to train again to do better than he did."
It's a lot of work for events that are finished in the blink of an eye, with plenty of crazy things capable of happening. One of the top runners last year in the 300 hurdles, Ben Holcomb of Germantown, stumbled in the preliminaries and didn't make the finals.
"It's partly up to chance; something like that could happen, but it's a rare thing," Michels said. "In the offseason, I tried to run as much as possible, get as strong as much as possible. Right now, I'm trying to fix my form, because it's all right but nowhere where it needs to be to get to state."
He'll also try to reach La Crosse in a third event, either the 200 or a relay.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure on everybody who's going to be there," Michels said of his Oconomowoc teammates. "Not one of us can make any mistakes to win state (as a team)."
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