The English have soccer, the Indians have cricket, the Americans have football, Kenyans have athletics and Rwandans have cycling...the sport that would one day see Phil Southerland, a global ambassador for diabetes, bring his Team Type 1 to the scenic land of a thousand hills for the annual Tour du Rwanda race.
Southerland was born in Tallahassee, Florida in the US. At seven months, he was diagnosed with type1 diabetes, meaning he would be dependent on insulin shots to control his blood sugar levels. Doctors told Phil's mother that he would be lucky to live to 25, and even if he did, he would be blind.
However, doctors would soon discover that it would be easier to control the condition if he remained active. Phil was then thrust into cycling at the age of 12, which coincided with his competitive spirit. That is the point at which he decided if there were a chance to live up to 25, he might as well enjoy his life.
Thirty eight years later, Phil is beating the odds. We met in Rwanda where he was leading a team of five young cyclists, all living with type1 diabetes, to participate in the 2020 Tour du Rwanda.
It was his 14th visit to the country.
“Diabetes is all I have ever known; getting shots for me is like breathing,” said Phil, adding that for the first time in his life he felt normal on the bike.
“The wind in your hair, you move fast, you see things...the beautiful thing about cycling is that the harder you work, the faster you go. I learned a lot about diabetes management while cycling.”
Tour du Rwanda began in 1988 as a local competition. Soon, it began to attract cyclists from the region, then Africa. In 2009, it went international, drawing participants from around the globe.
So how did he end up an ambassador for diabetes? Phil went on to become one of the best cyclists in south east America, but one day after winning a race, something happened.
A young man walked up to him and said: “Phil, seeing you win gives me inspiration that one day I will also win.”
The young man was also had diabetes. But when Phil asked if he was managing it, it became apparent that he wasn’t. Phil then taught him how to manage the condition.
"Then over time, he got better in school, better on the bike and his confidence levels rose," said Phil. “I had never helped anyone before; I had always raced for me; at that moment my perspective towards life changed; I realised helping to save someone’s life is much better than winning a race.”
The year was 2003, and two years later, Phil co-founded Team Novo Nordisk, also called Team Type1, the first pro-cycling team where all members have diabetes. A few years later, after competing in many countries, Phil retired. He now works as the team's CEO. Team Novo Nordisk has become a plateau on which people with diabetes stand to achieve their dreams.
Among the five riders Phil brought with him to this year's Tour du Rwanda, is Sam Brand. He has lived with diabetes since he was a little boy.
I met him at Hilltop Hotel in Kigali where participants were residing. He seemed a man of calm demeanour.
Brand celebrated his 28th birthday in Rwanda, which he described as the best he had ever had. The Tour du Rwanda media team together with his team members surprised him with cake and singing at the hotel.
The pinnacle of Tour du Rwanda 2020 was Sunday March 1, when 20-year-old Eritrean Natnael Tesfazion emerged winner of the competition.
Participants in the eight-stage competition cycle through the hilly roads in rural Rwanda , to the pristine Kigali streets. The event, a combustion of cultures, ideas and opportunities, attracts people from all walks of life... who line up the streets to cheer their favourite teams.
Participants and sports tourists alike immerse themselves in the culture, people and the beauty of Rwanda.
Lionel Marie is from France. A sports director of team Israel Start-up Nation, this was his second consecutive year attending the Tour du Rwanda.
“I saw a beautiful country, children running around happy, it’s an exhilarating sight,” he said. “Its different from Europe where everybody is complaining; every time; when I come here I return home with renewed energy.”
To Marie, the only difference from last year's visit is that Kigali now has more cars, but remains "a wonderful destination for cycling lovers."
According to Phil, one of the best things about his journey with diabetes is that it brought him to Rwanda, where he has impacted the diabetes community over the years.
He shared how in 2009 at an event in Montreal, Canada, he met the president of the Rwanda Diabetes Association, Francois Gishoma, who is also managing diabetes.
Gishoma encouraged Phil to bring his team to participate in Tour du Rwanda as "it would be an inspiration to diabetes patients in the country, an idea he welcomed."
“I asked Francois, what if I also bring blood glucose meters and testers, he got on his knees with tears in his eyes and said please come, my children need you—that is, members of the association.”
“It's because of that statement that we came, I nearly put my company out of business that year with the money we paid to bring supplies to Rwanda, but we survived.”
Since then, Phil’s team has been supporting the Rwanda Diabetes Association, until 2018 when they ran out of money.
In desperation, late one night Phil wrote to health technologies firm Abbot asking if they could offer the Rwandan government equipment at a subsidised price in a long term deal. Abbot donated glucose meters and close to 12 million test strips, to last Rwandan diabetes patients for four years.
2020 awards’ list
Stage Winner: Diaz Gallego (Nippo Delko Marseille)
Best Team: Androni Giocattoli (Italy)
Best Rwandan: Mugisha Moise (Skol Adrien Cycling Academy Team)
Best African Rider: Tesfazion Natnael (Eritrea)
Best Combative Rider: Munyaneza Didier (Benediction Ignite)
Best Young Rider: Tesfazion Natnael (Eritrea)
Best Sprinter: Yemane Dawit (Eritrea)
Best Climber: Rein Taramae (Total Directe Energie)
Yellow Jersey Holder 2020: Tesfazion Natnael (Team Eritrea)
Natnael Tesfazion is 2020 Tour du Rwanda champion
Twenty-year-old Eritrean Natnael Tesfazion won the 2020 Tour du Rwanda race, becoming the third rider from his country to ever win the eight-stage, annual cycling event.
The others are Merhawi Kudus, who won the race last year and Daniel Teklehaimanot in 2010.
Tesfazion covered the 889km race in 23 hours, 13 minutes and one second, beating Rwandan Moise Mugisha from Skol Adrien Cycling Academy by 54 seconds.
Swiss Patrick Schelling of Israel Start-Up Nation finished in third place after clocking 23 hours, 14 minutes and 33 seconds.
Spanish cyclist Jose Manuel Diaz of Nippo Delko won the final stage in two hours, 33 minutes and 24 seconds, while Mugisha finished second clocking two hours, 33 minutes and 27 seconds.