June 2, 2009
By: Megan Stinnett
It doesn't come easy being an elite young diver. One has to undergo intense workouts and prepare every day. Tennessee diver Sean Letsinger did all of that and more. The Knoxville, Tenn., native always was prepared for his next diving competition, but not for the medical condition that would change his life forever.
Two years ago, as a redshirt freshman diver, Letsinger found out through an injury that he has a very rare genetic disease called Wilson's disease. Approximately one of every 100,000 people are affected by this disorder.
"The disease itself is where the body doesn't process and filter out copper from the foods and drinks we take in," Letsinger said. "For Wilson's disease patients, our bodies only filter out parts of the copper, so it stores in the brain and liver."
"It may cause severe brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and ultimately death, if the disease is left untreated."
Wilson's disease has the ability to take over an individual's life, from required medicine to diet restrictions. But for Letsinger, he has taken numerous steps to lessen the impact of his condition and live his life to the fullest.
"I have to take three pills," said Letsinger. "I have to take the pills three times a day for the rest of my life. However, I have to fast two hours before taking the pill, and for one hour after taking the pill I can only drink water. So, nine hours out of every day, I can't eat anything.
"Doing all of this has been a big life adjustment. You know, being a young adult male, I (want to) eat all the time," Letsinger said.
Letsinger is very passionate about diving. Since being diagnosed with Wilson's disease, his diving career has been affected, but that doesn't mean he is avoiding the ladder.
"I'm still diving because I love it, and I want to be a diving coach," Letsinger said. "Before I was diagnosed, my aspirations as a diver were much grander... like I wanted to go to the Olympics. But now, that's not even in my vision. Now it is more `What I can learn from my diving and transfer it into coaching and then maybe succeed one day there?'."
Letsinger currently coaches young Knoxville-area divers. With his knowledge and love of the sport, coaching is something that Letsinger hopes can propel him further in the sport.
"I love diving and I wanted to help," Letsinger said. "When I was diving, I would always have my parents film me. Once I was done diving or practicing, I would go home and watch my video. Just by doing this, I would improve my diving and see what I was doing wrong.
"Now it is my turn to help other young divers improve."
It's easy to be inspired by Letsinger's story and courage. However, Letsinger is very humble when asked about his inspirational journey.
"It's how you handle the situations that you are given... I think that defines whether or not it is an inspirational story," Letsinger said. "And I hope I am handling it in an inspirational way."
As for next season, Letsinger plans to continue learning and improving, all while working on his coaching.
"I think this (coaching) experience will definitely help me out," Letsinger said. "I can better put myself in the diver's shoes and understand their frustration if they ever get hurt or something happens."
Being a Knoxville native, it is no surprise that Letsinger has already made post-graduate plans to remain home in East Tennessee.
"I want to coach for a living, but where? I have no idea yet," Letsinger said. "I would like to eventually wind up back here and take the place of (UT diving coach) Dave Parrington, but we will just see how it all plays out."
With his passion and love of the sport, the strength to bear Wilson's disease and the boldness to continue with his diving career, it comes as no surprise that Letsinger aspires to become a collegiate diving coach. But in the meantime, Letsinger's focus is on finishing out his career as a Big Orange diver.