Healing Healey

A decade at the top of his game came at a price for Austin Healey, here CALIBRE talks to him about keeping fit, despite his joint pain

Austin Healey spent the best part of ten years entertaining the fans of the Leicester Tigers and England rugby union teams. His dazzling speed, creativity and versatility across the backs, made him a fan favourite and a legend of the game. Never one to shy away from a controversial opinion – he gained the nickname ‘The Leicester Lip’ due to his outrageous comments – he backed them up on the pitch by winning pretty much everything he could.

However, all this came at a cost. It was in 2006 that Healey was forced to retire from the game due to severe injuries to his shoulder, knee and back. Since then he has had to live with the pain of those injuries on a day-to-day basis, having to cope with severe joint pain in his left leg and early onset arthritis in his knee. He first started to realise the extent of his injuries around half a decade ago.

“Once I had all my injuries, I had a different type of pain and that pain changed from an acute pain, an injury pain, to a dull arthritis pain that would peak and trough but was always there. So, arthritis-wise, I would say I’ve had it for at least the last five years in varying levels,” explains Mr Healey.

As with most people who have to live with joint pain, it soon becomes a question of how you cope with it. “I was trying to mix a cocktail of anti-inflammatories and red wine!” says Mr Healey. “I tried chondroitin, glucosamine and variety of other things, but they just didn’t work. It eventually reached a point where it was becoming impossible to live with the pain on a daily basis and I was running out of options.

“My left shoulder got to the point where I went to see a specialist and he advised me to get a shoulder replacement,” says Mr Healey. “I had to have another knee operation about eighteen months ago to try and alleviate a bit of pain from that and I have seen a variety of different specialists – chiropractors and osteopaths for my back – just trying to get it as good as it can be.”

“Once I had all my injuries, I had a different type of pain”

Naturally, even for someone with a positive mindset and happy-go-lucky personality like Mr Healey’s, it can start to get you down: “Anyone who lives with constant pain knows what it is like. You will have really good days where it just hurts a little bit and then you have really bad days where you just lie in bed.

“I wouldn’t say it affected my mental state as such, because you sort of know you have ‘got it’. It was more a case of it affecting my energy levels, so I felt really low on energy, particularly with my back. Anyone who has had a bad back will tell you that it drives your energy levels right down.”

However, in recent months things have started to turn a corner for Mr Healey – and it all came from a chance recommendation from one of his friends: “A friend of mine recommended I take a joint health tablet called GOPO about a year ago. I’m quite prepared to try anything, whether a doctor tells me to or not! But, I thought I would give it a go and I did the loading phase,” he explains.

“It’s not like a magic tablet where you take it and suddenly everything has gone, but I started taking it and finished my loading phase, and noticed, just gradually, that my joints were feeling a lot lighter and easier. From that point on I could start to up my training, and it became part of my pain management process.”

This rosehip-based supplement allowed Mr Healey to start doing what seemed impossible not too long ago, and regain his fitness: “I started to up my training and have been able to train a lot harder with a lot more range of motion in my shoulder, knee and back. I’ve lost a bit of weight and everything has got progressively better since then.

“I even managed to ski this year without a brace on my knee and with no pain. Normally when I go skiing I am on anti-inflammatories, paracetamol, aspirin, whatever I can take so I can carry on skiing – but this year I did some of the craziest stuff I have ever done and I did it with no pain.”

It is not surprising that a professional sportsman would be thrilled with the opportunity to get back in shape, but as he enters his 43rd year, does he still find it hard to stay motivated to keep fit?

“If I’ve got a goal – and I’m sure it’s the same for most people – I find that the training is, in some ways, more fun than what you are actually training for.

“If I haven’t got a goal then I can find it hard, because if you have an excuse to have a bacon butty and a cup of coffee instead of sitting on a bike for an hour, then you will often take the easy way out,” he adds.

Of course, Austin’s battles with joint pain are well-documented, but what of his teammates and others within the game? Are they going through similar troubles?

“Anybody who has played a high-impact sport like rugby is going to find that their body is sore after they finish, particularly if they suddenly stop training. You just need to keep getting out there and losing the weight. Because if you eat like an athlete, and you’re not an athlete, then you are going to put the weight on,” he says.

So, is this level of physical damage acceptable and should the Rugby Football Union be doing more to protect its players in the longer term? Especially considering the wide-ranging reforms that other high-impact sports, such as American football, are making in order to counter similar criticisms.

“I think it is part-and-parcel of the game. I wouldn’t say that it’s an acceptable legacy, but it’s certainly something that every rugby player I know has had to deal with in various forms.

“I think the thing that affects the game the most these days is the speed of it. With rugby, the faster the game, the lower the impacts are generally, due to the lighter players. The slower the game, the bigger the players are going to be, and so there will be bigger impacts. And it’s definitely the impacts that do you!

“I injured my shoulder playing for England against South Africa when a 20-stone guy landed on top of my shoulder when my arm was fully extended along the floor. My knee was injured in a one-contact situation where I got tackled from three sides at the same time. My back was just done after being hit repeatedly. None of those injuries were based on training or fitness orrunning or cycling. They were all based on the game.”

After all those years in the thick of it, does he have any regrets?

“No, none at all, I’m pretty happy. Rugby was the start of my life – it wasn’t the end. Rugby won’t define who I am and what I do. I’ve been retired for ten years and I have got to the stage now where I am the fittest I have ever been and I don’t really want to waste that.”

Josh Stephenson