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In WWE’s NXT brand, Kyle O’Reilly is a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound, deadly striking machine who uses his mastery of martial arts to floor his opponents. But outside of the ring, the cagey Canadian has been forced to face a very personal challenge in the form of type-1 diabetes.
It is a disease that initially threatened to derail his big dreams of becoming a pro wrestler, but instead of tapping out, O’Reilly has worked hard to gain the upper hand. Much like with his highly anticipated match against Adam Cole at NXT’s The Great American Bash on Tuesday night, the 34-year-old intends to prove that nothing can obstruct him from reaching his goal of being recognized as one of the industry’s greatest stars.
Muscle & Fitness sat down for an exclusive chat with O’Reilly and learned firsthand that none of us should be prepared to see life’s challenges as an excuse to miss out on our own potential.
Growing up in Delta, Canada, Kyle O’Reilly threw himself into a variety of sports and soon found that the more physical the activity, the more he enjoyed himself. “Being a Canadian kid, hockey is a big deal,” says O’Reilly. “I was never a very good skater though, which is a tragedy for a Canadian kid (laughs).”
In his high school senior year, O’Reilly traveled to the British Isles for a rugby tour as part of a team that visited Ireland, Wales, and England. “We got slaughtered on the rugby pitch, but it made us a better team,” he says. “So, when we came back to North Delta High, we dominated the season because playing off against the Brits just made us better rugby players.”
As someone who lives by the “If you’re not tapping, you’re not learning” ethos, O’Reilly has continued to challenge himself with high-impact sports on top of his demanding day job as a pro wrestler. He’s a keen proponent of kickboxing and jiujitsu, but a shock discovery in his teens almost dealt a knockout to his sporting ambitions.
“I was 18 years old, and I had just started my pro wrestling journey,” says O’Reilly. “I was in wrestling school and getting to the point where I could start getting booked for matches. But something was off, and I was pretty sick. I was dropping weight, and I was urinating every five minutes, and it felt like there wasn’t enough water on planet earth to quench my first, you know?
“I visited a doctor to get my physical done for wrestling, to get my Washington State wrestling license, and the doctor comes back and asks me if I have type 1 diabetes. I was like, ‘no.’ So that was awkward (laughs). The diagnosis kind of came out of nowhere, but after that, it’s been a blessing in disguise. It keeps me accountable for my own health, and I’m a lot more on top of everything now. Once I was able to get on insulin therapy, I was able to gain the weight back.”
Rather than bow out of professional wrestling, O’Reilly set about taking control of his own destiny, and was able to show that with the right care, the disease can be managed. “People were reluctant to support this dream of being a pro wrestler with this new diagnosis, but I refuse to let that define me, or stop me from chasing and following my dreams. Living with diabetes is about having a support system and being part of a community,” he says.
O’Reilly has been inspired by others who have grabbed life by the horns, despite living with diabetes, and he credits Chris Ruden as someone that has given him a reason to keep pushing himself. “You have your people that you look up to,” says O’Reilly. “Hockey legend Bobby Clarke is a type 1 diabetic, and he always says that he never wanted to be looked at as the hockey player with diabetes, you know? He wants to be known as a great hockey player that just happened to have diabetes. And that’s how I look at myself, as a wrestler in NXT. I want to be seen as an awesome wrestler that just happens to be diabetic.”
While O’Reilly doesn’t feel the need to let his diabetes define him, he does understand that raising awareness is important in order to give others that same message of hope that he received. “Hopefully, I can inspire people that may also be dealing with something like this in their own lives,” he says. “I would be lying if I said it’s not difficult. On days where I wrestle, my stress levels are up and my cortisol is high.” Generally, Kyle O’Reilly will need insulin straight after a match. “Because my body kind of goes into that ‘fight or flight’ survival mode and releases a lot of sugar (during the match), so I tend to run my insulin levels a little high before and after matches, but I would rather that than the alternative of going low, and being hyper glycemic. We all have good days and bad days as diabetics, but I don’t let one bad day define me, or ruin the next day.”
Living with diabetes, O’Reilly’s approach to nutrition is to make sure that he knows exactly what he is eating, so that he can manage his insulin intake. “Eating to control my glucose is the most important thing to me,” he says.
Since making his pro wrestling debut back in 2005, O’Reilly has put in thousands of hours of ring time, and has earned a reputation for being a great technician. He’s held the NXT tag titles on no less than three occasions with The Undisputed Era. But the breaking up of that iconic group has brought about a personal rivalry between himself, and the faction’s former leader, Adam Cole. They will do battle on Tuesday night at The Great American bash on USA Network.
“It’s the coolest thing ever,” says O’Reilly. “Growing up, as a fan of this business, I always loved those themed pay-per-views, and now I get the opportunity to come out of the In Your House entrance, and perform on Halloween Havoc and WarGames. These are really cool, nostalgic, events, but now that NXT is revamping them for the modern age, it exposes people to them again, and what’s old is new again.”
“One hundred percent for me, this whole (pro wrestling) journey has been about testing myself against the best competition that this industry has to offer,” says Kyle O’Reilly. “Challenging guys that are going to make me into a better fighter and a better performer is what it’s all about. I’ve got to become the best version of myself before I can possibly become the NXT Champion. The success and accolades will come when I am at my peak, so testing myself against the best competition is gonna get me there, and I’m happy to take on anybody.”