Hannah Vester Refuses to Be Defined By Medical Conditions

Photo Courtesy: Greta Schneider

By Emma Merrill, Swimming World College Intern

Hannah Vester and I have been teammates on William and Mary’s varsity swim team for the past year, ever since I first shared her lane during week one as a freshman. From day one I looked up to her like any freshman would to a talented upperclassman, but I had no idea of the story behind the fast junior girl in lane two.

Vester’s early swimming years followed the typical track of many age group swimmers. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, she joined her local summer team, the Indian Hill Wahoos, when she was six years old and started swimming year-round with the Cincinnati Aquatic Club at the age of seven.

Vester continued to compete with the Wahoos every summer until her freshman year of college. Her favorite pre-college swimming memory comes from one high school state meet when her team won states with only seven swimmers.

While her background may seem similar to many college swimmers in the country, Vester’s world was turned upside down during her junior year of high school.

After seven or so weeks of poor practices, sluggish races, and losing 25 pounds while eating 3000 calories a day, she knew something was wrong. Her dad, a heart surgeon, decided to take her to the emergency room when he checked her blood sugar after a meet.


On January 11, 2011, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital doctors diagnosed her with Type 1 diabetes. Ironically, they told Vester that swimming was the only reason she survived undiagnosed for so long.

To many people, this would mean the end of competitive swimming—or at least the end of dreams of D1 college swimming—but not for Hannah Vester. She didn’t let her diagnosis stop her from swimming fast and pursuing swimming at the highest amateur level.

William and Mary assistant coach Chris Carter recalls Vester’s first goal meeting with him and the other coaches- “She said, ‘I am a distance swimmer, I have diabetes, and I will not be defined by it.’”

Before I even knew that she had diabetes, I could see that she was a force to be reckoned with at practice.

“If you are close to her at the end of a race or a main set, you had better bring your A game because she is willing to go to places deep within herself that others aren’t,” Carter said.

As a distance swimmer, Vester’s best events are the 500, 1000, and the 1650. Over the past three years she has broken a freshman record in the mile, placed in the top 8 at the Colonial Athletic Conference Championships in several events, been named All-CAA twice, and competed in the U.S. Open Water Swimming Nationals, where she got 32nd in the nation.

Her accomplishments in the pool speak for themselves. Vester is not to defined by diabetes.

The Daily Routine

But her daily routine does include several steps that the average college swimmer doesn’t have to deal with. Each day she has to eat lunch and take insulin about three hours before practice to make sure there is no extra insulin in her system before she swims. Then about 30 minutes before practice, she eats a PB&J or Nutella sandwich and checks her blood sugar to make sure she isn’t low.

The highly aerobic nature of swimming requires transferring a lot of sugar out of the liver and into cells to power your muscles through a long set—something that Vester’s body fails at.

To compensate when her blood sugar drops too low, which happens usually after about 50 minutes of swimming, she has to get out during practice, check her blood sugar level, and eat a few glucose tablets before hopping back in to finish the set.

Like a true athlete, Vester explains living with Type 1 diabetes in terms of competition:

“You’re racing your body to make sure the insulin you give yourself starts to counteract the carbohydrate you are eating before it makes your blood sugar too high. Then when you add swimming…steps A, B and C that worked for you before, go out the window because variables X Y and Z can each have different effects on A B and C which effect one another.”

Another Testing Diagnosis

In case her life as a D1 college swimmer didn’t already have enough variables, Vester was thrown another major curveball this past October when a CT scan revealed a softball-sized tumor on her right adrenal gland. Doctors informed her that it would need to be removed as a cautionary measure.

After the surgery, Vester was out of the pool for three weeks and unable to complete a full practice for another two. She had barely recovered, nor was she ready to race, but Vester managed to swim a few events at the Hokie Invite, our fall taper meet.

Come January, when it was time for conference team selection, Vester was unsure of where she stood. Her uncertainty proved unfounded as she not only made the team, but swam right on her personal bests in all three of her events, placing 5th in the conference in the 1650.

While most people would be content with a successful third season of college after having a serious surgery (not to mention dealing with Type 1 diabetes), Vester has already set goals for next season.

She is determined to go a best time in the 200 freestyle, an event she has not dropped time in since junior year of high school. Her most important goals are not about going best times. Vester sums up her priorities for next year saying she wants “to have as much fun training in and out of the pool that I’ve ever had and make the most out of my last year in the sport.”

As someone who has already faced more adversity by age 20 than many people will deal with in a lifetime, Vester deserves an enjoyable last year. But if I have learned anything in writing this article, it’s that the other distance swimmers in the CAA had better be afraid, because Hannah Vester does not back down.

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Tracy Jurgella
8 years ago

My 12 year old daughter is a competitive swimmer and was diagnosed Type 1 at age 9. There is a lot that goes into swimming with diabetes that other swimmers and coaches don’t understand. This story is very inspirational. Thank you Hannah!

Shanna Perkins
8 years ago

My 12 year old daughter is also a competitive swimmer for the past 3 years and was diagnosed at age 3. We don’t let it her define her…she’s ridden English huntseat competitively, karate, runs, snowboards, and Snow skis as well. Thank you Swimming World for posting an inspirational story!!!

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8 years ago

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Kim Williams
8 years ago

Inspirational article Samantha Hope Segrest, her story reminds me of you and your refusing to be defined by your knee issues.

Karen Pierce
8 years ago

Brent Walker, here’s an encouraging story.

8 years ago

I was a college swimmer. I am also a pediatric nurse. I will share this with my patients! Thanks Hannah! Chase your dreams!

Alison DeLuca
8 years ago

Irene Gamal thought of Daniel

Irene Gamal
8 years ago
Reply to  Alison DeLuca

I will share this article with Daniel very similar to his story

Linda Johnson Hutchens

A very inspirational story about a young lady who has control of her goals in life!!! Go Hannah!!!

Hannah Vester
8 years ago

thanks guys!!

Susan Van Buren Mustian

You’re a rockstar Hannah Vester…my rockstar!

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