In the UK alone, more than 10 million people have arthritis. The condition can affect individuals of all ages and walks of life. You may be surprised to know that even some of the biggest names in the history of sports are suffering from chronic joint pain and stiffness.
In this article, we’ve put the spotlight on 10 award-winning athletes with arthritis – from pro golfers to cyclists, tennis stars to footballers. Read on to find out more about their unique experiences and encouraging stories of strength, management and support.
American LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) Tour pro Kristy McPherson has had an impressive career spanning 19 years, which, so far, has earnt her 17 top 10 finishes. At 11 years old, she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and told she’d never play sports again. However, although she is used to waking up with pain, Kristy continues to train and improve.
As a member of the Arthritis National Research Foundation board, this inspiring female athlete is dedicated to spreading awareness of arthritis and helping to find a cure. Go Kristy!
Motivated by meeting other young people with arthritis, a few years ago, 28-year-old rugby star Emily Scott, who plays for England and Harlequins Women, spoke openly and publicly about her struggles with RA (rheumatoid arthritis).
Emily has been managing her condition alongside her professional rugby career since she was 17. “I’ve had really low moments,” she said. “I remember a particular England training session where I couldn’t physically catch and pass the rugby ball, it was so painful.”
Despite the ups and downs, Emily has adapted and continued to play the sport she loves! You can read all about her journey via the Versus Arthritis website.
There’s a good reason why Wayne Gretzky is nicknamed “the Great One”. The Canadian former professional ice hockey player and former head coach is the leading goal scorer, assist producer and point scorer in NHL (National Hockey League) history.
Wayne first noticed the early symptoms of arthritis in 1999 and was diagnosed with osteoarthritis shortly after his retirement. He is a generous supporter of the Arthritis Society of Canada and became a spokesperson for the Osteoarthritis Early Awareness Campaign.
Another celebrated sports figure with arthritis is Caroline Wozniacki. The Danish former professional tennis player has won an impressive 30 professional titles and was ranked World No 1 in singles for over 70 weeks between 2010 and 2011.
Frustratingly, like many of us, Caroline found that her RA took a long time to diagnose. However, in 2018, once she knew the root of her joint pain, she put a treatment plan together and set off on her new journey. To combat her arthritis symptoms and flare-ups, Caroline eats a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, looks to reduce her stress levels and “takes it easy”.
Everyone has heard of Shaquille O’Neal, but did you know that the American NBA legend has had osteoarthritis for over a decade? At just over 7ft tall, with size 23 feet, Shaq’s large build takes its toll on his body. He suffers from a lot of pressure on weight-bearing joints such as his knees and ankles and experiences a great deal of pain in his toes.
Shaquille has continued to lead an active lifestyle. He retired from playing basketball in 2011 and now works as a sports analyst on the television program Inside the NBA.
Seonaid McIntosh is on top of her game, despite living with a joint disorder. In 2019, the now 26-year-old became Britain’s most successful female rifle shooter of all time. She has won three World Cup medals, was the first British woman to rank World No 1 for the 50m Rifle Three Position event and is a European Champion in the 300m Rifle Prone event with an equal World Record score.
Seonaid’s RA affects her knee and wrists. However, this strong, inspiring young woman continues to train and becomes better and better. In an article for Edinburgh Evening News, she said: “I think a lot of athletes will have had that feeling – that sometimes it is just too hard, but we all have to push through it.”
The Team GB athlete is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Biomedical Engineering, which she balances alongside her sporting career. She is passionate about speaking to young groups about overcoming adversity from her experience of dealing with RA from a young age. What an excellent role model!
Tiger Woods is one of the most famous athletes in the world. The American professional golfer is the youngest man ever – and the first man of colour – to win the Masters Tournament of golf. He holds numerous records, including having the most PGA Tour event wins of all time, joint with Sam Snead.
Tiger has osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, which he likely developed as a result of the trauma of sports injury. He suffers from joint pain and over the years, has undergone various operations due to knee and back issues. Tiger continues to prove that with determination comes great success!
American figure skater Dorothy Hamill is the 1976 Olympic champion and world champion in the ladies’ singles. Although she is now retired, Dorothy has experienced chronic pain for many years of her life.
After suffering a herniated disk in 1997, doctors discovered that she also had osteoarthritis. Dorothy has been able to manage her pain and arthritis symptoms through exercise and a healthy diet. In an interview, she explained: “I knew I inherited arthritis from my grandmother who suffered from it. My brother also has it. All the falling on the ice probably didn’t help. I started physical therapy and found exercises to ease pain in my hips and spine. Through gentle exercises, I’ve been able to manage the pain.”
The name Kristin Armstrong is synonymous with professional cycling. But did you know that prior to her career as a road bicycle racer, she was a swimmer, distance runner and triathlete?
At 27, Kristin was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her hips. “I had started having some pain in my hips for a few months, but I’m kind of a self-confident person and thought I could diagnose myself,” she said in an interview with the LA Times. “I would ice my joints and take anti-inflammatories and just push through. However, when I realised the over-the-counter anti-inflammatories weren’t working, I went to my doctor.”
Kristin wasn’t about to give up on her dreams. In 2004, she made the Olympic team and went on to win the US national championship three times!
Tony Larkin OBE had an illustrious professional football career spanning 15 years. When he retired in 1979, he became head of sports and recreation at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), spearheading the introduction of blind football in the UK. Since then, in his role as coach, Tony has taken two teams to the Paralympic Games.
Tony developed severe arthritis in his hips, resulting in bone-on-bone contact, as well as arthritis of the knee. He underwent several operations and can now proudly say he’s “pain-free”.
And while not many of us will go on to compete in the Olympics and achieve sporting world records, we should all be celebrating the small victories in managing our arthritis. These relatable, encouraging stories are a testament to the fact a life with chronic pain can be a successful, fulfilling one. It’s all about taking little steps in the right direction to improve your condition!
Here at To Better Days, we’re all about championing the chronic pain community –celebrating your achievements, offering support and spreading awareness. Our Facebook group Together For Better Days features a whole host of resources, and if you’re looking for arthritis treatment, you can explore our range of active patches, which provide natural, simple-to-use, fast-acting pain relief for joints, nerves and migraines.