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Lobo women’s basketball player Otto doesn’t let diabetes stop her

New Mexico women's basketball player Jannon Otto, who is diabetic, warms up with her teammates before the Lobo Howl earlier this month. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/For The Journal)

New Mexico women’s basketball player Jannon Otto, who is diabetic, warms up with her teammates before the Lobo Howl earlier this month.
(Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/For The Journal)

High-energy and high-maintenance: Jannon Otto is both.

The former description is obvious to anyone who spends time around the freshman guard for the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team. Otto is in nonstop motion on the court; upbeat and gregarious off it.

Such liveliness serves her well.

Otto came to New Mexico off a superb high school career in Northern California. She eclipsed 2,300 points and 1,100 rebounds at Victorville’s Oak Hills High, twice earning High Desert League Player of the Year honors. ESPNW rated her as the 16th best wing in the 2015 recruiting class with a 90-point rating on a scale of 100.

The same energy that fueled Otto’s prep success is already translating to Division I. Her ball-handling skills and slashing style have turned heads at UNM’s Davalos Center, putting the 6-foot-1 newcomer in the mix for major minutes when the regular season tips off next month.

“Jannon is just a total basketball player,” Lobos coach Yvonne Sanchez said. “She loves to play, comes to practice every day with a smile on her face and brings other players up with her. She has plenty of room to get better, but her skill set is pretty impressive for a freshman.”

Otto’s energy also manifests through humor. When she and her teammates tried on new black-and-white, camo-style warm-ups prior to last week’s Lobo Howl, Otto announced: “I think we look like cows.”

But Jannon Otto also has a high-maintenance side. Evidence accompanies her everywhere.

During practice she occasionally skips a team sprint to drink Gatorade or knock down a granola bar. Otto also checks in frequently with athletic trainer Andrea Quintana and raids a special “lunchbox” stocked just for her.

Otto has Type 1 diabetes, which requires constant monitoring – and brings a few puzzled expressions when people notice the small electronic device often clipped to her beltline.

“One of the coaches who recruited me asked, ‘Why do you practice with your phone? Are you listening to music?’ ” Otto said. “A lot of people think it’s a pager or something like that, so I get asked about it. I just say, ‘No, I’m diabetic. It’s an insulin pump.’ ”

UNM athletic trainer Andrea Quintana, left, administers a blood-sugar test to women's basketball player Jannon Otto prior to the Lobo Howl at the Pit. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/For The Journal)

UNM athletic trainer Andrea Quintana, left, administers a blood-sugar test to women’s basketball player Jannon Otto prior to the Lobo Howl at the Pit.
(Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/For The Journal)

Highs and lows

Otto is matter-of-fact about her condition but admits it took her a while to get there. She was diagnosed just before her 12th birthday after her weight and trademark energy level dropped.

“You don’t want to feel sorry for yourself,” Otto said, “but you kind of do because you didn’t really do anything wrong. With Type 1 (diabetes) it’s just, ‘Your pancreas doesn’t work.’ ”

Typically diagnosed in children or adolescents, Type 1 is a condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Without insulin the body cannot process sugar, which normally enters cells to produce energy.

There is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, but it can be managed through insulin use, diet and exercise. The goal is to maintain blood glucose levels in a normal range, but the balancing act can be tricky.

Not enough insulin or too much sugar intake can leave a person hyperglycemic or “high.” Too much insulin or not enough sugar intake leaves them hypoglycemic or “low.”

Otto has experienced both.

“If you’re high, you get kind of shaky and hyper and have to go to the bathroom a lot,” she said. “But it’s worse when you’re low. It’s hard to describe that feeling but it’s not good.”

Otto battled through low glucose levels at practice once last week, stopping frequently to grab food and drinks from her lunchbox and to have Quintana check her glucose levels.

She referred to it simply as a bad day.

“When I’m low, it’s like I can’t even think straight,” Otto said. “I feel really tired and don’t want to do anything. Probably from watching me you wouldn’t think it affects me that much but it’s a weird feeling. You can’t even think about what you’re doing. You’re not yourself.”

UNM basketball player Jannon Otto's "lunchbox" is filled with food, drinks and medical items to help control her diabetes. (Ken Sickenger/Journal)

UNM basketball player Jannon Otto’s “lunchbox” is filled with food, drinks and medical items to help control her diabetes.
(Ken Sickenger/Journal)

Team effort

Keeping Otto in the normal glucose range is now one of Quintana’s top priorities in her role with the Lobo women. Quintana all but force-fed Otto carb-loaded snacks and sugary drinks during her recent low day at practice.

“I had to drink like seven Gatorades and ate everything in that lunchbox,” Otto said. “You’re so full but you have to keep eating because you need it, you know?”

Until this year Otto’s mother, Kelly Hennessy, helped regulate her daughter’s diabetes. Hennessy coaches girls basketball at Oak Hills High and was rarely far away during Otto’s volleyball or club basketball outings.

Quintana has willingly stepped into that role. In fact, she helped Sanchez and her staff lure Otto to New Mexico with a detailed plan for managing her diabetes.

“(Quintana) had a plan,” Otto said. ” ‘We’ll do this, we’ll do that.’ She’s been like my second mom.”

Quintana had not worked with a diabetic athlete prior to this year but she now has two. A member of UNM’s track team also has diabetes.

“It’s a new experience but we’ve adapted,” Quintana said. “For me it’s mostly a matter of monitoring, being aware and making sure the athletes stay on top of their levels. It may involve some nagging at times, but I can handle that.”

Even a second mom cannot be perpetually on call, however. With that in mind, Sanchez, her assistant coaches and Otto’s teammates have become educated about diabetes.

“It’s something we have to be constantly aware of,” Sanchez said. “Her teammates know how to clean her (insulin) pump just in case. I think they tend to keep an eye on her, too.”

None more so than Otto’s roommate, fellow freshman Emily Lines.

“Emily wants to become a nurse,” Otto said. “I don’t usually want anyone else to put my pump needle in, but she wanted to do it and is pretty comfortable with it now. I’m proud of her.”

Rising above

Basketball fans who watch Otto on the court this season are unlikely to notice her condition. She often wears her insulin pump at practice but prefers to take a shot if necessary before or during games.

“In games I usually take (the pump) off, because it’s kind of bulky and people hit it or the cord gets ripped out,” Otto said. “That hurts – and it plugs into a little tube that’ll start bleeding, so it’s just bad.”

Those who happen to watch UNM’s bench may see Quintana checking Otto’s glucose levels or see the freshman indulging in some normally unhealthy snacks when her numbers dip.

“Yeah, she gets Cokes, nuts, candy,” Sanchez said with a laugh. “All the things I want and can’t afford to eat.”

Otto said Quintana has enforced a few snack restrictions.

“I used to always go for Skittles. I like them too much,” Otto said with a laugh. “Dre’s kind of limited the Skittles, but I like cheese sticks and granola bars, too. My teammates give me a hard time and say they’re going to steal my Cokes and stuff, but they’re really supportive.”

Glucose-boosting snacks aside, Otto takes her health care seriously. She pays close attention to carb intake (“Even the ketchup on a hamburger counts.”) and usually knows when her body needs insulin or some food.

She’s also serious about not using diabetes as a crutch. Otto may skip a sprint to drink a Gatorade, but she participates in most and frequently finishes first.

Otto also does her homework and knows diabetes does not have to be limiting. She roots for other athletes who share her condition, including Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and UCLA women’s basketball player Kacy Swain, and has left any moments of self-pity far behind.

“This is not going to hold me back,” Otto said. “I’ve studied Type 1, and I think there is one thing you can’t do: You can’t be a pilot. So if I wanted to be a pilot, it wouldn’t work out.

“With everything else it’s like, go for it, follow your dreams. Playing college basketball is mine.”

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