Like 21 million other Americans, Conner has osteoarthritis, the most widespread form of the ailment, which causes painful inflammation of the joints. But unlike most osteoarthritis sufferers, who begin feeling symptoms after age 50, Conner was diagnosed with the disease in his mid-20s. "Athletes very commonly have osteoarthritis," from cartilage loss due to wear and tear, explains Dr. John Klippel, medical director of the Arthritis Foundation.
For years Conner competed despite the discomfort. But his back problems became so excruciating during a 1996 gymnastics exhibition tour that he could barely get out of bed. "He had pain for quite a while," Comaneci recalls. "We changed the mattress and the pillows"—to no avail. Since finding some relief with new anti-inflammatory painkillers, Conner has embarked on a campaign called B.E.A.T. Arthritis (Boost Education of Arthritis Treatments) to increase public awareness of the disease, which, as baby boomers age, is projected to strike one in five Americans by the year 2020. "It's important to know that when it's caught and treated early," he says, "it's totally manageable." Conner spoke to correspondent Michael Haederle about his battle with the disease.
As an athlete, I guess I'd gotten used to living with aches and pains. But after Nadia and I completed a 40-city gymnastics tour following the 1996 Olympics, my back really started to hurt. Rolling out of bed in the morning was hard. I didn't play golf, because it hurt my lower back. You get up in the morning, and you can't reach down and you can't tie your shoes. If I spent a couple of hours walking around at the mall, my back would kill me. I think my back pain got worse because I spend a lot of time on airplanes or at my desk. I was used to recovery: stretch, put some ice on the back and in a few weeks see the results. But it still hurt.
I already knew I had some arthritis in my joints. In December 1983, while I was training for the '84 Olympics, I tore my left biceps tendon. A radiologist took X rays of my arm and saw there were large bone chips in the left elbow that had been grinding away in the joint. The doctor said, "You have the elbow of a 90-year-old man." I was only in my 20s at the time, and I was naturally shocked. "What do you mean?" I asked, and he said, "It's arthritis." The connotations were terrible. You associate arthritis with old people.
The doctors told me that the arthritis was probably related to the injuries I had throughout my career. From the time I was in high school, I had had multiple injuries, most of them bone spurs and problems with ligaments and tendons. And in 1980 I tore my right biceps. But I wasn't about to quit gymnastics. It wasn't gymnastics that was hurting me. It was everyday things. I don't want people to get the idea that I was a gymnast and therefore I have arthritis. Nadia suffered some injuries in her career too, and she doesn't have arthritis. We all pushed ourselves through injuries. It always amazes me when people say, "I was training for the Olympics, but I had to quit because I sprained my ankle." That's nothing. I always kept going. I didn't care. I still don't care.
After I had the 1983 surgery to reattach the biceps I went on to the L.A. Games, where I won two gold medals. I stopped competing after the Olympics, but I continued to do gymnastics exhibitions. I stayed in shape and worked out pretty hard. I never really stopped. When I had to get ready for an exhibition, I cranked it up a bit. My back in those days was not so bad. It was a little tight, but I could work through it.
The injuries continued, however. In 1985 I had my knee reconstructed. Although the repair job improved things, I still can't fully bend the leg, and it's stiff a lot of the time. If I play tennis, it'll get puffy, so I've cut back. All told, I think I had nine different surgeries for various problems. But I don't have regrets about any of that. Scars, surgeries—none of it. My attitude was that my injuries were fixable with physical therapy or surgery, so why let them interfere with what I loved to do?
At the same time the arthritis was getting worse, but I didn't know whether my aches and pains were anything unusual. I didn't know what I was supposed to feel like. How much of what I felt was getting older, and how much of it was lifestyle? I didn't like the idea that the pain was interfering with the activities I enjoyed. It sounds almost greedy to say I wanted to feel like a 24-year-old, but what's wrong with that? I didn't want to have to give in to what people are calling old age.
Then on the 1996 tour, when we'd perform routines in arenas, I could feel it. I was restricted in my motions. I still did it, but it hurt, and I didn't do as well. At that point I did the sensible thing. I didn't push it. I modified my workout—more stretching and less pounding. I'd been taking ibuprofen to help with the pain, but I was concerned about the side effects of taking it for the rest of my life. People would say things like, "You're just getting old," and I didn't want to hear that.
So last year I went to the doctor. He suggested a new anti-inflammatory painkiller known as a Cox-2 inhibitor, which I take every morning. It's something you can take for a long time without side effects. What I feel now is less pain, so I can stretch, and when I stretch I feel better.
In fact, the best thing you can do for arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, is exercise. But if you have pain you are reluctant to do what you have to do. You need to keep your muscles limber and your joints moving. If you sit around, you're just going to get stiff and the pain isn't going to go away. Stretching is really important as you get older, to stay limber and flexible. Another thing you can do is to vary the intensity of your workouts. My doctor told me I might be better off working out every other day rather than every day, because the soft tissue needs time to recover.
I don't want to exaggerate what I've experienced. I'm affected but not incapacitated like some people. It's., not going to get better; it's a chronic, degenerative disease. But I'm going to at least treat the symptoms. And I don't plan to give up gymnastics. It's not like I'm pretending to do the hard stuff, but I can still do some good stuff. I feel kind of in a groove right now. I hope I can stay at this level of fitness for a long time.