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by Elaine K Howley

September 24, 2021

The Southern California Aquatic Masters member suffers from a type of arthritis

Rachel Pinto couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

When she lay down to sleep each night 20 years ago, she experienced severe pain in her back and rib cage. The only way she could find relief was to stretch and use a foam roller. Moving around the next day would alleviate her pain, but it would return again the following night. Exhausted, she sought medical attention.

“I just knew this was not normal,” Pinto says. “I should be able to sleep without pain.”

Her doctor ordered X-rays, which showed little obvious evidence of what was happening in her spine and rib cage. But a rheumatologist recognized her symptoms right away.

Pinto has ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that afflicts about 1 in 1,000 people and causes long-term inflammation of the joints of the spine. Over time, the disease causes bones in the spine to fuse together, which can be very painful and makes movement difficult. In advanced cases, it can cause the joints of the rib cage to fuse, making breathing difficult. There’s no cure, but treatments can help.

One of the most important kinds of treatment for this degenerative autoimmune disease is exercise, which led Pinto to take up the sport of swimming. “I was never on a swim team,” says Pinto, 44. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

Pinto started swimming laps at a Y and eventually became a member of Southern California Aquatic Masters. “That’s when my love for the sport really, really changed,” she recalls. After several years of swimming on her own, swimming with a group of like-minded people and getting feedback from a coach opened up a new world to her. She got faster, and her coach’s instruction helped her avoid getting hurt. (Her condition makes it more likely that repetitive motion done incorrectly could lead to injury.)

As her love for swimming deepened, Pinto began participating in meets, including several regional and national championships. She has one individual Top 10 time, in the 400 IM, and was part of 11 relay Top 10 times.

“She has gone from a beginner to nationally ranked in her age group,” Southern California Aquatic Masters Coach Bill Bean says. “That is the definition of progress and a testament to the true lifetime goals of Masters Swimming in my mind.

“She did this all while suffering from a potentially debilitating illness, which really only a very few of us know about. Her coaches and teammates don’t see the daily pain that she suffered during the previous flare-ups, but we see the drive in the aftermath. We see the determination and dedication that keep her healthy, that is healthy, and that define who we know her to be. It makes her a joy to coach.”

Swimming has long been recommended as a great form of exercise for people with joint problems. Water provides swimmers with a near-weightless environment that greatly reduces the strain on their joints and improves their range of motion and circulation.

In addition to swimming and staying as active as she can out of the water, Pinto also receives an infusion therapy of the drug Remicade, which helps tamp down the immune system’s erroneous assault on the body’s own tissues. “It’s been a miracle drug” that’s helped her better manage her condition and get on with living, Pinto says.

The threat of the disease getting worse always lurks at the edge of consciousness, she says, as a bad flare-up about six months after the birth of her son 12 years ago showed. “Not only did my back hurt, it was everything from my feet to my knees. My hands—I couldn’t hold a glass of water—and my neck. Everything just went berserk in my body.” It took a while to get it under control, but eventually, Pinto got better and got back to a more normal routine. 

Pinto aims to swim about three or four times a week and is regimented about getting to the pool. She also adds in a weekly ocean swim when the water is warm enough. “I have to move every day,” she says. “I just have to stay active. If I don’t, that’s when the joints can fuse together.”

She says swimming and connecting with the community of Masters swimmers has been an extraordinary means of taking care of herself, and she hopes others can find a supportive situation too.

“Swimming changed my life,” she says. “It helped me turn something really bad into something amazing.”


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