What Athletes Want You to Know
Follow professional sports and sooner or later you’ll see rheumatoid arthritis (RA) on the fringes of a star. After tennis champion Caroline Wozniacki was diagnosed in 2018, she dropped out of the rankings and retired in 2020. That same year, RA forced top cyclist Ian Stannard to retire.
Such news can be of concern to any athlete with RA. If elite performers cannot wield power through their sports, what hope do we have?
A lot, it turns out. First, some professional athletes are staying in the game with RA, like Olympic snowboarder Spencer O’Brien. Second, countless people with RA are able to train, compete, and achieve their dreams.
Here’s what three inspiring athletes with RA want you to know about tough times, training and breaking the odds.
The Paralympic Equestrian
When you live with RA, you know that painful, swollen joints are the tip of the iceberg. The disease and its treatments can affect your skin, lungs, blood vessels, etc. You are also at increased risk of bone fractures.
These risks do not prevent Canadian Paralympian Bert Sheffield from practicing her sport, para-equestrian dressage. Sheffield rides daily (sometimes several horses a day), cleans stalls and does other physical work at the barn despite permanent damage to joints and ligaments. She has two tips for the athlete newly diagnosed with RA.
Learn your limits and stick to them. I didn’t understand how important it was until recently. Either I pushed myself too hard and got too tired, or I put something back on and stressed out when I could, which set off flares. It is good for your body and your mind to accept where you are at, not to constantly lead yourself into the future.
It is normal to walk through a dark area. The diagnosis seems overwhelming and you may have to go through a grieving process and a period of readjustment. The nature of an athlete is to be tough and uncompromising, and you probably won’t feel that way for a while, but you can feel it again.
The aerial yoga teacher
Cheryl Ackerman began dancing professionally as a teenager in New York City, first for a dance troupe and later as a replacement dancer, touring with Chaka Khan, Lisa Lisa and others. In her late twenties, however, her career was coming to an end. She had severe neck pain and a doctor said the herniated discs were to blame. She would not get medical clearance to dance on tour again.
Crushed, Ackerman moved to Florida for a fresh start in an office job. Her “typical dancing pains” followed – and got worse. Doctors were confused for years until they diagnosed him with RA at 37.
She was in too much pain to exercise but needed to move her joints so she started with yoga which led to aerial yoga which was life changing. “It relieves my joints, decompresses my spine, and gives me a full body workout,” she says. “The doctors said I couldn’t dance anymore, but with aerial yoga I can dance in the sky.”
Ackerman was certified to teach yoga and aerial yoga, and now she owns and teaches in her aerial yoga studio in Florida. Here’s what she wants every athlete to know, whether you’re a weekend warrior or a serious competitor.
Never say never – and don’t believe anyone else who says it. The doctor who told me I would never dance again didn’t know about aerial yoga, and neither did I. I found myself in a really negative headspace after that. You start to think about all the things you can’t do. You start to close yourself off to new things without ever trying them. Don’t let anyone put you off. If you don’t have a lot of support at home, start social media groups for people with RA. No one understands what this disease looks like better than people who have it.
Amanda McQueen was diagnosed with RA shortly after turning 19. It was horrible as expected, although it didn’t crush any sporting dreams. Fitness wasn’t on McQueen’s radar until she hit her 30-year goal of losing 30 pounds in one year with diet and exercise.
She felt so good mentally and physically that she wondered, “What else can I do for my body?” So began his training as a bodybuilder, which involves weight lifting to sculpt muscles in specific ways.
A registered nurse by day, she worked hard during the off-peak hours to transform her body from normal everyday to totally ripped. She took part in two shows before the coronavirus closed competitions. On her first outing, she placed third in her division. In the next competition, McQueen placed first.
The 37-year-old, who can’t wait to compete again after the pandemic subsides, has this advice for any aspiring athlete with RA:
You have to find your people. Not everyone will celebrate your victories when you return. People might ask you if you really have RA or if you are taking stimulant medications like anabolic steroids to help you. Find people who believe you can do it, no matter what, so you can get support along the way. And about those days when you’re too tired to workout: show yourself anyway. I find that no matter how I feel when I start, I always feel better at the end.
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