At four years of age, Pam Fernandes learned a word that most four year olds rarely, if ever, even know: diabetes. She was diagnosed, at this very young age, with Type I insulin dependent diabetes. The Connecticut native, the youngest girl in a family of five boys and two girls, learned to manage the disease and became a high school basketball and softball player.
Fernandes' physical challenges intensified when, at 18 years of age, she began losing her sight, one of the most common complications of the disease. She, as well as anyone, understood the seriousness of her condition as she began the very long road that would lead to over 30 operations. She had lost her older brother Mark to the same disease.
Odds makers would have thought she was beaten, but not Fernandes. Determined and still fiercely independent in spite of enormous physical challenges, she continued her undergraduate studies at Boston's Wheelock College. She earned her BS in education, all while undergoing dialysis treatments three days a week for kidney disease, the second major complication of her diabetes. She received her degree in education in May of 1985 to a standing ovation.
Still on dialysis she started her career as a spokesperson for people with disabilities. One of her proudest accomplishments was founding the "Team with a Vision," a team of blind, partially sighted and sighted runners that competes in the Boston Marathon to raise money for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and to educate the public about the abilities of people with disabilities. Although active with a career and philanthropic work, Fernandes was still tied to three days a week of dialysis. Then, at age 27 she decided to get a kidney transplant. The decision changed her life.
Physically active for the first time in six years, Fernandes took up bike riding. She was hooked on tandem cycling after her first ride, discovering that "going that fast was a great experience. So often, for people who are blind, mobility is restricted. To experience speed and freedom like that which you find on a bicycle, is pretty exciting."
Now a three time Paralympic medalist, Fernandes enjoys cycling for many reasons, including the fact that it keeps her in top physical shape, important in her fight against diabetes. She trains five to six days per week, logging over 500 miles per month, and competes in regional, national and international cycling events each year.
To date, her most impressive athletic accomplishment was her performance at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. She and her partner, Al Whaley, clutched the first Gold medal ever won by a tandem for the United States in Paralympic history. Their Gold medal performance also established a new world and Paralympic record in the 1 kilometer time trial. Additionally, the pair won a Silver medal in the match sprints. All of this in spite of Fernandes breaking her foot just ten days before her first event in Sydney. In recognition of her determination and courage, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) named Fernandes and Whaley as recipients of the USOC Olympic Spirit Award, presented in Salt Lake City in February 2001.
Fernandes' work in the diabetes community is as important to her as her work on the bike. Sge was the 2001 American Diabetes Association's National Spokesperson for The Diabetes Alert Campaign. She also serves on the Board of Overseers for the Joslin Diabetes Center. She is a member of the Women's Sports Foundation, the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association, the United States Association of Blind Athletes, and the New England Women's Fund. She is also a member of The Hartford Financial Service Group's "Team Ability," the nation's first corporate sponsored team of athletes with disabilities.
Although Fernandes has amassed an impressive collection of medals and awards in her nine years of competition, she isn't done yet. She will continue racing and educating others about the amazing abilities of those with disabilities and to promote the benefits of physical fitness. Through her travels as a professional speaker and a competitive athlete, Fernandes changes the lives of those she meets, helping them realize their own potential as well as the power of the human spirit.
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