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Illinois center Eva Rubin manages diabetes, advocating for others while working on social justice and mental health campaigns: ‘She’s passionate about everything she does’
Chicago Tribune - 3/7/2021
A few months ago, Illinois center Eva Rubin received a request from a basketball coach at another college asking her to speak to a player who had questions about diabetes.
For Rubin, sharing her struggles and triumphs with Type 1 diabetes feels like a personal calling.
“That was a really awesome moment for me to interact with someone who might be struggling a little bit or understands what I’m going through,” she said. “I’m open about it. I have it in my (social media and team) bio. I want to be there for someone who doesn’t have someone they can relate to.”
Rubin’s goals to excel in college sports are centered on reaching her athletic potential and helping build the Illini program. But she’s also shows how people with diabetes can excel in sports.
“I did worry about basketball (when diagnosed),” said Rubin, a Homewood-Flossmoor graduate who transferred from Arizona State and sat out last season. “I actually missed middle school basketball tryouts because I was in the hospital. I was concerned about being able to play with my diabetes. Clearly, I figured it out eventually because here I am playing Division I basketball.”
Rubin, a 6-foot-5 post player, averages 7.6 points and 3.4 rebounds while leading the Illini with 20 blocked shots. She scored 16 points on 8-for-13 shooting in the regular-season final Friday, a 72-64 victory against Minnesota.
Illinois (4-17, 2-16) is the No. 12 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will face No. 13 Wisconsin (5-17, 2-17) in the lone first-round game at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Only 13 teams are competing in the tournament because of Ohio State’s self-imposed postseason ban.)
It was a process for Rubin to learn to manage Type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. She has a routine and is in tune with her body’s response, but she still can have rough days.
Feeling well takes effort and vigilance, especially with meal planning.
At practices, athletic trainer Autumn Taylor places color-coded cards on the gym wall to indicate where Rubin’s sugar levels are so she can see them from the court. The stoplight system includes a green card for safe, yellow for caution and red for needing to stop.
Rubin wears a continuous glucose monitoring device that uses a Bluetooth connection to send her levels to her phone and to an app on Taylor’s phone so she can monitor Rubin’s levels during practices and games.
Rubin has learned to accept taking breaks for her safety.
“Obviously she is a very competitive person and wants to be there for our team,” Taylor said. “It’s adjusting and learning. ‘Hey, no one is going to fault you for doing what your body needs.’ We’re here to help her manage her life outside of basketball as well. She’s not just here for sports. It’s taken her awhile to understand we’re here to support her.”
Fahey’s commitment to developing well-rounded players and Illinois’ health resources that helped draw Rubin to Champaign. Fahey has a niece with diabetes and also coached a player with the disease when she was at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You have to have a trust to understand what they’re going through,” Fahey said. “If I don’t have the respect to (listen to her), then I shouldn’t be her coach.”
Rubin was diagnosed around age 13, seeking answers from a physician for why she was always so thirsty and why she used up all of her restroom passes in the first two weeks of school.
Hearing she had diabetes “was confusing,” she said. But, true to being a teenager nearly a decade ago, Rubin thought about a pop musician.
“The first thing that came into my mind was Nick Jonas and how he is a diabetic,” she said of the famous former Disney star and Jonas Brothers band member. ”I was like, well, if Nick Jonas has diabetes and he’s doing all kinds of stuff, I will too.”
She endured a period a few years later when she grew tired of having to make healthy decisions and monitor her health so closely. When her doctor refused to sign paperwork that would allow her to get her driver’s license, “it was a wake-up call.”
She developed healthier eating routines, but there were still stigmas and pressures, often involving sports.
Rubin said sometimes coaches didn’t understand why she needed to take breaks. Afraid of losing time on the court or of facing criticism, she would push herself to compete despite her sugar-levels warning.
“It’s a tough thing to understand when you don’t have it yourself or know anyone who does,” Rubin said. “If I have to miss 20 to 30 minutes of practice or I’m having a tough week, there’s a level of frustration that I’ve had to deal with. That can be hard because I put a lot of effort into managing this. The thing with diabetes is you can do everything right and still have a terrible blood-sugar day.”
Rubin works closely with Taylor and team dietitian Palmer Johnson. Her meal plan changes depending on practice times or workload. They worked to “fine-tune” her eating, including incorporating a slow-release carbohydrate bar.
“She came into the conversation very well-educated,” Johnson said. “There were no red flags (with her self care). She’s very smart.”
Sharing her experiences with teammates and staff has been an education.
“Her maturity is really good for the team,” Fahey said. “She’s such a great teammate. When you talk about her off the court, she’s passionate about everything she does.”
That’s not just basketball.
Rubin is programming chair for the Illinois athlete group EMPOWER (Enlightened Minorities Pursuing Opportunities Where Everyone Rises), which seeks to “support personal development for student-athletes of color as a community.”
The group hosted an athletic department online conversation in the wake of social unrest after high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people this summer. It also hosted a forum to talk with local police and planned a unity walk that was canceled because of COVID-19.
“It’s been awesome just to have this group of student athletes dedicated to raising awareness and increasing diversity and inclusion on this campus,” Rubin said.
Rubin took part in “Black Student-Athlete Summit,” a three-day virtual convention in January. Her teammates are receptive to hearing messages about social and racial justice.
During Black History Month, they played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before games and wore warmups that read “I am — " with the blank filled in by players with the names of Black people who were killed, such as Emmett Till and Breonna Taylor.
“We wanted more than a hashtag,” Fahey said. “On our campus, they’ve developed groups that make changes. She’s been active in that.”
Rubin also is involved in the Green Bandana Project, which aims to “promote a supportive environment for student-athletes experiencing mental health stressors, as well as empowering fellow student-athletes to advocate for their well-being.” Rubin has a green heart on her Instagram page to show people she is someone they can talk to — a substitute for tying on a green bandanna in the era before COVID-19 when she had more in-person interaction with peers on campus.
Because of her experiences with health, she has dreamed of becoming a nurse. At Illinois she is a public health major. Because of the pandemic, she said she might pursue a career in that field.
For now, she will divvy up her time between her health, extracurricular activities and, of course, wrapping up the season.
“This team can go further than we have shown everyone we can go,” Rubin said. “We’re going to keep going and keep pushing and keep working.”
Rubin applies that attitude outside of basketball too.
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