How MMA Star Dessi Zaharieva Beats Diabetes One Punch at a Time
Diabetes Dessi Zaharieva almost had to give up martial arts after a serious injury on her leg, but as a true fighter at heart she stepped up to her next big challenge.
Dessi Zaharieva’s career as an elite athlete almost ended when she suffered a serious ACL injury in 2011. After operating on her knee, a surgeon told her she would have to give up tae kwon do, the martial art that had been the centre of her life since childhood.
But Zaharieva, who had been on the Canadian national team for four years, was determined to return to the mat and compete at the next world championships. She sought the advice of UFC star Georges St. Pierre, who had bounced back from an ACL injury, and dedicated herself to returning to top form.
Not only did she compete at the 2013 International Taekwondo Federation World Championships in Bulgaria, but she also won the bronze medal in women’s individual sparring. “When I’m told I can’t do something, I find a way to do it,” she says. She has proven that time and again.
A challenger enters the ring
When she was in Grade 3, Zaharieva started drinking copious amounts of water, urinating frequently and losing weight. Her mother took her to Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga, On., where tests revealed she had type 1 diabetes, a serious disease in which the blood sugar soars to dangerous heights because of a lack of insulin.
“The doctor showed me how to inject myself with insulin, and the first time I did it on my own, he gave me a little trophy,” she recalls. “I still have it.”
The little girl didn’t even consider leaving the martial art she had taken up the year before, when her father had registered her and her brother in classes. She pursued her passion, rising through the ranks of competitors locally and nationally while facing the challenge of maintaining a good blood sugar level.
"She pursued her passion, rising through the ranks of competitors locally and nationally while facing the challenge of maintaining a good blood sugar level."
In addition to following a strict diet and exercise regimen to manage her disease, Zaharieva now uses a blood glucose meter that wirelessly connects to her insulin pump. Using these two devices in combination, Zaharieva is able to ensure she gets the appropriate amount of insulin she needs to perform at her absolute best.
The 26-year-old athlete wrapped up her tae kwon do career last year, after competing in three world championships, and switched to mixed martial arts. While developing her skills in that arena, she’s currently recovering from another knee injury and pursuing her studies.
Making an impact through research
Zaharieva is a PhD candidate in kinesiology and health science at York University, where she is doing research aimed at improving diabetes management and control of blood sugar levels during exercise in individuals with type 1 diabetes.
She is also a motivational speaker who has appeared at various conferences and events. Many people have drawn inspiration from her accomplishments and from the success of other athletes with type 1 diabetes, such as hockey player Max Domi.
In the eight years since he was diagnosed with the disease, the 20-year-old has been managing it not just well, but well enough to establish himself as one of the best young hockey players in Canada.
"In the eight years since he was diagnosed with the disease, the 20-year-old has been managing it not just well, but well enough to establish himself as one of the best young hockey players in Canada."
The Arizona Coyotes selected him in the first round of the 2013 NHL draft, and he is now one of the best rookies in the league. Fourteen games into the season, he was tied for first on the team in scoring, with 13 points.
Domi has to go to great lengths to stay healthy, but he doesn’t view that obligation as something to be endured. He views it as something to be embraced. “Dealing with adversity has made me a stronger person and a better athlete,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in that.”
Zaharieva echoes that sentiment. She is proud of her success in sports and academia, but she just shrugs when people express amazement at how much she has accomplished despite her illness. “Sometimes,” she says, “what seems like a setback or a problem is a blessing in disguise.”