Kaylin Kinney doesn’t remember life before her diagnosis.
Ten years ago, doctors informed her that she had Type 1 diabetes. The first question on her mind was: “Can I still play basketball and softball?” A decade later, Kinney stars as both a pitcher and utility player for the Nebraska softball team.
At the time of her diagnosis, Kinney did not quite understand what Type 1 diabetes was, but she would soon realize how it affected everything in her life. Anything from a change in the seasons to stress can affect blood sugar levels, changing the way her body functions and drastically impacting the foods she can eat.
Kinney was playing club basketball at the time, keeping her out of her first few games after her diagnosis. She got back on the court soon, but diabetes had an immediate impact on her sports career. Every time she checked back to the bench, her parents checked her blood sugar, which continued for three years until she got her continuous glucose monitor.
If her blood sugar levels were too low or too high, it became unsafe to play. As a 10-year-old who could not eat the same things as her teammates, it was a struggle at first. Kinney had to manage her eating schedule around games and practices.
One time, Kinney pitched in a club softball game, and exited in a daze after she was hit in the facemask by a line drive. She got her blood sugar checked, and it was low, leading to the slow reaction time on the hit.
Another time, in between games, Kinney ate a giant cookie that her other teammates had for snacks, which shot her blood sugar level up.
“It was almost like she was kind of drunk,” Kalyin’s father, Mike Kinney, said. “Just lethargic, goofy, and silly and her blood sugar was too high. She shouldn’t have done it.”
Although this started out as a negative with several setbacks such as those moments, mentally Kinney shifted it to a positive over her playing career.
“I’ll never forget it, the day I was diagnosed, the nurse printed off paper after paper of athletes who had Type 1 diabetes and still competed at a high level.” Kinney said. “Like [softball player] Sara Groenewegen from Minnesota, and that gave me a different perspective on it.”
Kinney hopes to be that example for other aspiring athletes with Type 1 diabetes, showing that it cannot prevent you from accomplishing your goals. Since she has been at Nebraska, Kinney has found herself on a platform with younger girls looking up to her as an inspiration.
One example of this is found in the Nebraska Gold, Kinney’s old travel softball team, where a girl on a younger team reached out to her after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She asked Kinney questions, both over text and at meet up with her at lunch and found a role model in how to overcome the disease.
Even beyond softball, Kinney said she embraces her position as an ambassador of living with Type 1 diabetes.
“When I’m at the mall or a restaurant, girls will see my pump or my glucose sensor and they’ll come up to me and show me theirs,” Kinney said. “It’s way more common than you think it is. Growing up made me realize so many people are fighting the same battle I am.”
Throughout her journey, Kinney’s parents have been with her every step of the way. They have constantly checked on her, even stayed up with her in the middle of the night if her blood sugar is low and she can’t sleep. Throughout Kinney’s successes with both softball and in battling her diabetes, her parents have been instrumental.
“It’s such a balancing act, and to do it as a child and as a teenager,” Kaylin’s mother, Laura Kinney said. “Just take your life times 100. Sometimes we had to back off and let her learn on her own and learn from mistakes in a healthy and safe environment.”
The Kinneys describe themselves as “helicopter parents” throughout Kaylin’s teenage years, where they constantly tried to help her stay on top of her diabetes. Although raising a teenager is tough enough on its own, they said that’s especially the case with a teenager who’s an athlete with Type 1 diabetes. Her diabetes wasn’t something that could be ignored, it was a 24/7 job. Being with her every step of the way, and providing her a support system in the house, the Kinneys learned that it’s possible.
“There were people that told me how it was going to be and that she’s not going to be a pitcher if she has Type 1 diabetes,” Laura Kinney said. “If you want it bad enough and you have the right support system it’s absolutely doable. You can do this.”
Kinney gave up club basketball after her eighth grade year, focusing solely on softball. By the time she was in ninth grade, her coaches saw her trajectory and knew she could be a Division I talent.
“She’s always been very motivated,” Mike Kinney said. “‘One more,’ that was always the thing she said when we were in the cage and she wasn’t happy with the last pitch, it was always ‘one more.’ I want to do it right.”
She visited a number of schools as a high school freshman, and Nebraska came up as a potential landing spot. While the coaching and location were great, it was the accommodations and willingness to plan with her diabetes that fully won Kinney over.
It was there they met Lisa Kopecky, the Huskers’ nutritionist, who has 18 years of history with diabetes management, and has had an athlete with Type 1 diabetes every year she has been with Nebraska. Kopecky, along with the team physician, sports psychologist and the trainer did a Zoom call with Kinney and her parents and walked through any concerns they had about transitioning from college and to Division I athletics.
Transitioning from a home environment to a college environment, Kinney needed to stay on top of diabetes herself, being away from her parents. The training staff help if needed. They monitor her hydration levels from indoor to outdoor levels, from practice to games, and see if she has eaten before workouts to keep her blood sugar under control.
Through their talks, Kopecky said she knows to keep red Gatorade at the ready, as it’s Kinney’s preferred snack when dealing with low blood sugar levels. Kopecky also keeps hypoglycemia kits at various locations around the facility and with people on the team in case of an emergency in case of low blood sugar that needs to be dealt with immediately.
Kopecky checks in with her weekly, seeing how many low blood sugars she is having this week, and what causes them if they happen. This helps her with the knowledge of what is affecting her blood sugar levels and how to properly handle them.
Though the self-monitoring and being away from her parents’ support system was challenging at first, Kinney has risen to the challenge, and adjusted well to the life of a college athlete.
“I’ve seen her become more confident and more comfortable in the day-to-day routine because she’s overcome some obstacles in the past year and knows what works in different situations,” Kopecky said. “There will continue to be challenges throughout her career, but it shouldn’t be anything she can’t handle and should not in any way impact her ability to be an amazing student-athlete at Nebraska.”
Through her story, Kinney hopes to show the world that it’s possible to accomplish great things with Type 1 diabetes. She wants to be a role model, showing that battling diabetes is normal and not something to be down about. From the people who helped her overcome this on her journey to be a Division I softball player, Kinney hopes to similarly inspire the next generation to know that anything they dream is possible.