True grit: Hadley athlete doesn’t let diabetes, injury, blunt competitive edge

Wednesday, February 27, 2013
(Published in print: Thursday, February 28, 2013)

Olivia Mathieu sits on a bench among them. She takes out a needle to prick the top of her forearm, drawing a drop or two of blood to place on the test strip of her glucose meter.

This is part of the senior guard’s pregame ritual. A multi-sport standout, Mathieu, 18, has had type 1 diabetes since eighth grade. She must check her blood sugar level before every game.

“It definitely makes me more nervous and takes away some from my ability to focus,” she said.

If her level is too high, she feels dizzy and nauseous. She’ll then need to give herself insulin and will stress about her blood sugar going too low, a condition that can make her shaky. In those instances, everything becomes difficult, even throwing a pass to a teammate.

“Generally, it’s fine,” said Mathieu, who scored her 1,000th career point earlier this season. She’ll play basketball at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., next year.

“I try to be pretty on top of it, but there have been a few instances where it has been a problem and I regret that I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have before the game,” she said. “It happens.”

Once Mathieu is comfortable with her blood sugar level, she settles down, ready for action. If she seems uncommonly poised given her medical challenges, it may be because she’s had a strong role model. Her older brother Cameron Mathieu, 20, has been a diabetic since he was 2.

Cameron Mathieu, a three-sport athlete in high school and a club hockey and club soccer player at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., showed his sister that someone could be a standout athlete while living with diabetes.

“I knew all about it because of him,” she said. “It would have been a very hard transition had I not known anything about it. I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have him as a role model to learn how to deal with it.”

Type 1 diabetes, once called juvenile diabetes, occurs when the body does not produce insulin, which turns sugar and other food into the body’s required energy. It is a genetic, lifelong condition that requires careful monitoring, but doesn’t stop people from having full, active, athletic lives.

According to the JDRF, which was formally the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund before the disease’s name was changed, approximately 30,000 Americans are diagnosed as having type 1 diabetes each year and as many as 3 million Americans, including many professional athletes, have the disease.

Olivia Mathieu checks her blood sugar level just about every three hours — and always before games and practices. She wears an insulin pump when she isn’t playing sports, but she removes it during athletic events and then has to rely on syringes until she puts the pump back on after the game. The pump is attached to her side and automatically gives her insulin throughout the day. The device allows her to administer insulin to herself without the need for a syringe.

She estimates that she’s had to use the syringe in roughly 65 percent of the games at Hopkins. She tries to wait until halftime, but sometimes, including three times this year, she’s had to give herself insulin right on the team’s bench.

When current coach Fred Ciaglo took over three years ago, he didn’t know much about the disorder.

“I learned a lot about it,” Ciaglo said. “She took care of it herself and I was very impressed with how mature she was and is. At the same time, I have to be aware of it because she’s the kind of kid who will run through a wall to keep playing.

“We’ve always communicated about it, but it is like there is nothing there. She handles it.”

Family history

The Mathieu family knew Olivia would eventually become diabetic years before it actually happened.

Her brother Cameron had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a toddler. Because he occasionally suffered from seizures at night when his blood sugar dropped too low, his parents, Hank Mathieu and Susan Moran, had to wake him every night to check his levels.

“It really became very all-consuming for us with a child that young, plus he has a twin,” Greg, who is not diabetic and also studies at Hobart, Hank Mathieu said. “When you see your young child go into a full seizure, it is frightening. You have to prick their little fingers. It was not fun for us to have to administer that discomfort to him, but we had to keep him healthy.”

The family took part in the National Diabetes Prevention Trail through Baystate Medical Center. The program monitored the family, which is how they discovered Olivia was at high risk for the disease.

“It was pretty much a foregone conclusion she would eventually have it,” said Hank Mathieu, who is not diabetic. Neither is Moran.

Doctors told the family that staying as active as possible was key to keeping their kids from gaining weight. They passed on cable television and signed the kids up for a gym, swim and craft program at the YMCA. That turned into ice hockey, soccer, basketball and baseball.

“Before you knew it, you are going from one thing to the next thing to the next thing,” Moran said. She credits her husband for setting the tone. He was, she said, “always coaching these things and leading these things. I had to do a lot of cheerleading and sitting on the sidelines enjoying it.”

Olivia Mathieu spent her days competing against her brothers in all sorts of sports and all three were — and still are — ultracompetitive. She says it is those experiences that fostered her love of sports. Though it was a challenge to play brothers who were older and bigger, she loved it and loved the variety of games — soccer, basketball, street hockey, whiffle ball.

“It was what we always did,” she said.

Cameron Mathieu said he can see how those years affected his sister.

“I feel we gave her some of her intensity — as big brothers, we weren’t afraid to block her shots,” he said. “It’s hard not to see it in her. She’s a fiery player. She was the smallest, so she always had to work to get hers and she’s always been competitive. She’s always wanted to win.”

Olivia says she appreciates the time playing with Cameron and Greg.

“I’m really glad I had them. That was my childhood. We were always outside, active, doing things,” she said. “They made me the competitor that I am today.”

And even if it was frustrating to be at a disadvantage, she says now she can see how it made her a better athlete. “I rarely beat them,” she said. “There was the occasional time I would win against them, and they would not be too happy.”

On Sept. 20, 2008, Olivia Mathieu, then 13, asked her parents to drive her to the emergency room to have her blood sugar tested.

“I wasn’t feeling all that well,” she said. “I knew it was going to happen. I was consuming so much fluid and going to bathroom so much. I knew symptoms from my brother.”

Doctors informed the family that Olivia Mathieu had become a type 1 diabetic, not entirely surprising news. Still, it was jarring to realize that life was dramatically changing.

“It was difficult,” Moran said. “She was crying. She knew right away what was happening. The first person she talked to was Cam and he really helped settle her down.”

Footsteps to follow

Luckily for Olivia Mathieu, she had Cameron, and having him around, knowing the life he led, comforted her more than any words he could have offered.

Cameron Mathieu said his main concern was making sure his younger sister was comfortable in her new challenges.

“Not everybody wants to pull out a needle in public and give themselves insulin,” he said. “People are going to stare and ask questions. Take it with a grain of salt. You have to take it every single day to feel normal. I tried to instill in her that nothing is going to change. Unfortunately, this is what it is.

“Even in real life, outside of athletics, it is something that is constantly on your mind. If you are in flux, it is going to affect your personality, your mood and how you behave.”

Olivia Mathieu hardly missed a beat. As a high school student, she was a standout soccer player in the fall and juggled both basketball and hockey in the winter. She also played club lacrosse in Belchertown for a time.

Sports aren’t her only interest. She’s senior class president at Hopkins, a student council co-president, a member of four bands and the mock trial team. She’s also coached youth sports in the town for the past three years.

“We know she’s a well-rounded person and if she didn’t have sports, she’d find something else to do that would be positive for her,” Hank Mathieu said.

Competitive edge

Olivia Mathieu’s competitive nature is on display every time she steps on the field or court, where she is often among the most aggressive players. Her intense desire to win can at times seem overboard.

“For any athlete, I think there are times when you realize you could have done something a little less rough, but in the moment, you are just trying to do what you can to help your team,” she said. “I’d hope my opponents can accept that and understand. I understand it for other people, if you aren’t trying to hurt someone. You are being competitive within a game.”

Olivia Mathieu has been a difference-maker for all four of her years on varsity, averaging more than 10 points per game in each season and establishing herself as a dangerous weapon on defense.

Her intensity reminds Ciaglo of someone he knows quite well.

“I compare her to my brother Paul — the kind of player you love having on your team and hate playing against,” Ciaglo said of his brother, a former standout player at Hopkins who went on to pitch in the Montreal Expos minor league system. “We know kids are going to try to get in her face and try to take her out of the game. As a sophomore, she would let her emotions get the best of her. Last year was better and this year is even better.

“She’s just as competitive in practice. Those players are hard to find and really nice to have on your team.”

Olivia Mathieu is aware that her playing style has made her unpopular with some of Hopkins’ rival teams.

“I know some people don’t like me. There are entire teams that hate me. I don’t know why,” she said. “It’s frustrating to me because these girls don’t know me as a person. If they give me a chance as a person, the game would be a lot more fun. But there are a lot of teams that aren’t like that. It’s a good, competitive game in the moment, and when it is over, it’s fine. I’m friends with some other teams.”

Olivia Mathieu’s desire to win was on display in a different way during last year’s Western Massachusetts Division 3 Tournament first-round game against rival Smith Academy.

During the game, which Hopkins won, she suffered a knee injury and could barely stand. She begged Ciaglo repeatedly to put her back in the game and was told she had to get permission from both the school’s athletic director and her mother. She did and she tried to re-enter the game twice only to leave when the pain was just too much.

It was later discovered that she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament and needed surgery.

Any medical issues are complicated by diabetes and Olivia Mathieu, also a standout soccer player, stood virtually no chance of being back in time for the fall season, costing her a chance to reach the 1,000-point milestone.

She had the procedure in April and worked hard to be ready to play on the first day of basketball practice on Nov. 27.

Olivia Mathieu finished her junior season needing 211 points to reach the 1,000-point mark. She attacked her rehabilitation with the same ferociousness she summons up on the court but her doctor still recommended that she bypass the season. She decided to play and was ready for the first day of basketball practice.

“In the end, it was my call and I was like, ‘I feel fine.’ I probably worked the hardest I’ve ever worked for anything just because I was so determined to get back,” she said. She’s played every game this season and hit the 1,000-point milestone Feb. 7.

The Golden Hawks went 12-8 during the regular season and earned second place in the Franklin South. On Tuesday night, they opened the Western Massachusetts Division 3 Tournament with a 58-17 win over Pathfinder at home. Hopkins plays at Granby on Friday night in the quarterfinals with a spot in the semifinals at the Curry Hicks Cage at the University of Massachusetts on the line.

“I’ve always wanted to play at the Cage,” Mathieu said. “We are very focused. Our practices are that much more intense.”

The highlight of the season came Feb. 7 in the Hopkins gymnasium, when the team played rival Easthampton. The fact that Olivia had come back to reach her goal even after such a bad injury, Moran noted, made it even more momentous.

With Mathieu needing four points to reach the milestone, it felt like all of Hadley crammed into the little gym in what Moran called “a magical night.”

When she made her big basket — a turnaround jumper from the left block — the place exploded. The game stopped. Mathieu’s parents and grandfather gave her flowers and balloons. Teammates and opponents alike congratulated her before the game resumed. It was unforgettable.

“It meant so much to Olivia,” Moran said. “She really appreciates that she plays for her school, but also her town.”

Jim Pignatiello can be reached at

Legacy Comments 1

Thank you for the wonderful story about Olivia Mathieu. She is truly a beautiful person inside and out, and a real inspiration when it comes to conquering adversity.

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Video: Olivia Mathieu's 1,000th career point

Friday, February 8, 2013

Here's Hopkins Academy girls basketball senior Olivia Mathieu scoring her 1,000th career point. …