What Athletes With RA Want You to Know

4 min read

Follow pro sports and sooner or later you’ll see rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sideline a star. After tennis champ Caroline Wozniacki was diagnosed in 2018, she dropped from top rankings and retired in 2020. The same year, RA forced top cyclist Ian Stannard into retirement.

News like that can worry any athlete with RA. If elite performers can’t power through their sports, what hope do the rest of us have?

Plenty, it turns out. First, some pro athletes do stay 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 rough patches, training, and beating the odds.

When you live with RA, you know painful, swollen joints are the tip of the iceberg. The disease and its treatments can affect your skin, lung, blood vessels, and more. You’re also at increased risk of bone fractures.

Those risks don’t keep Canadian Paralympian Bert Sheffield away from her sport, para-equestrian dressage. Sheffield rides daily (sometimes multiple horses a day), cleans stalls, and does other physical work at the barn despite having permanent joint and ligament damage. She has two tips for the newly diagnosed athlete with RA.

Learn your limitations and respect them. I didn’t understand how important this is until recently. Either I pushed myself too hard and became over-fatigued, or I put something off and stressed about when I could get it done, which triggered flares. It’s good for your body and mind to accept where you’re at, not constantly drive yourself at the future.

It’s normal to go through a dark patch. Diagnosis feels very heavy, and you may need to go through a grieving process and readjustment period. 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 that way again.

Cheryl Ackerman started dancing professionally as a teenager in New York, first for a dance troupe and later as a backup dancer, touring with Chaka Khan, Lisa Lisa, and others. By her late 20s, though, her career came to an end. She had severe neck pain, and a doctor said herniated discs were to blame. She wouldn’t get medical clearance to dance on tour again.

Crushed, Ackerman moved to Florida for a fresh start in an office job. Her “typical dancer pains” followed -- and got even worse. Doctors were confounded for years until they diagnosed her with RA at age 37.

She hurt too much to exercise but needed to move her joints, so she started with yoga, which led her to aerial yoga, which changed her life. “It takes the pressure off my joints, decompresses my spine, and gives me a full body workout,” she says. “Doctors said I couldn’t dance again, but with aerial yoga I can dance up in the sky.”

Ackerman got certified to teach both yoga and aerial yoga, and now she owns and teaches at 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 I didn’t either. I ended up in a really negative head space after that. You start to think about all the things you can’t do. You start closing yourself off to new things without ever trying them. Don’t let anyone discourage you. If you don’t have great support at home, hit up social media groups for people with RA. Nobody understands what this disease is like better than people who have it.

Amanda McQueen was diagnosed with RA shortly after she turned 19. It was awful in expected ways, though it didn’t crush any athletic dreams. Fitness wasn’t on McQueen’s radar until she achieved her 30th birthday goal to lose 30 pounds in a year with diet and exercise.

She felt so good both mentally and physically, she wondered: “What else can I do for my body?” So began her training as a bodybuilder, which involves weightlifting to sculpt muscles in specific ways.

A registered nurse by day, she worked hard during the off hours to transform her body from everyday normal to totally ripped. She entered two shows before the coronavirus shut down competitions. Her first time out, she placed third in her division. At the next competition, McQueen placed first.

The 37-year-old, who looks forward to competing again after the pandemic subsides, has this advice for any aspiring athlete with RA:

You need to find your people. Not everyone is going to celebrate your wins when you get back out there. People might ask whether you really have RA or whether you’re taking enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids to get you through. Find people who believe that you can do it, whatever it is, so you can get support along the way. And about those days when you’re too fatigued to train: Show up anyway. I find that no matter how I feel when I start, I always feel better at the end.