Exploring women’s arthritis issues and needs

Paralympian Leigh Walmsley: Bull’s eye on RA

Shadow of an archerBritish archer Leigh Walmsley competed at the London 2012 Paralympic game despite living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Her target is clear: continue to manage her RA while participating in competitive archery locally and nationally.

Walmsley experienced symptoms of RA in her 20s. She recalled feeling progressively worsening stiffness and soreness over weeks and months, especially in the morning and evening. She did not receive a diagnosis until she was 30. Even now, 24 years later, she continues to experience fatigue from RA and admits that her RA is not as controlled as she'd like it to be. 

In an interview with Everyday Health, she commented on her journey with RA: "Many people just don't understand how exhausting RA can be. You put on a brave face and solider on most of the time, but sometimes you get so worn out, especially if you're in a flare. My current DMARDS don't seem to be helping, and the disease seems to be progressing. I don't receive any physiotherapy at the moment, and I don't see my rheumatologist nearly as often as I need to." Like many other athletes living with arthritis, finding the balance between disease management and sport excellence is a challenge.

To Walmsley, pacing herself is key. "I never started archery to do anything but get outside and make friends. It means I can do something active, as long as I pace myself," she said. Having a social support group is also important as it allows you to speak to and learn from people with RA who understand what you're going through.

Archery and RA may not work out for everyone but for those who wants to try, it can be an adaptive and enjoyable activity. Dr. Daniel J. Lovell, MD, associate director of rheumatology at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio, helps organize a summer camp for children living with RA, where archery is one of the sports offered. According to Lovell, archery is good for people with RA because it is a solo non-contact sport that does not rely on brute strength. There are modifications that can be made to the bow and arrow so that even someone with wrist and hand arthritis can participate in the sport.

Walmsley concluded: "I would recommend archery to anyone, but you won't know if it's for you unless you have a go first. You need to determine how archery affects you. You may need to take regular breaks or use a light bow. Everyone adapts their equipment to suit them. Try all the bow types because one may feel better, depending on how RA affects you." Other ways to adapt include using a stool, wearing supportive shoes and orthotics, wearing wrist supports, and switching technique and hand positions.

Walmsley's career accomplishments include a gold medal in the women's Recurve team at the 2011 Para-Archery World Ranking Event and being a Paralympic competitor of the Great Britain team at the London 2012 Games. She will not be competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympic games but is rooting for her team on Twitter. You can follow her at @auberginearcher.