Nolan Ryan, a marvel on the mound, still knows it takes work

Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Allsport
The following interview with Hall-of-Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan was carried recently in an edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

During his 27-year career, Nolan Ryan scored a string of records longer than his legendary arm, finishing with 5,714 strikeouts-more than any pitcher in the history of baseball.

With a sizzling 100-mph fastball and wicked curve, Ryan could strike out anyone. Legendary hitters Henry Aaron, Sammy Sosa, Reggie Jackson, and George Brett all felt the sting of the "Ryan Express."

Today, Nolan and Ruth, his wife of 34 years, have teamed up with the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and the Arthritis Foundation to author two practical guides on physical fitness. While the first group addresses the needs of all ages, emphasizing the importance of physical fitness and nutrition as key to a healthy and energetic life; the second group addresses coping strategies for people suffering from osteoarthritis, a disease affecting 21 million Americans.

"As a professional athlete, I made an early commitment to staying healthy and to lead an active lifestyle," Ryan said. "Our guide is designed to help others realize it's never too late to get started."

In 1993, after a torn elbow ligament, Ryan hung up his Texas Rangers cap. He returned to his hometown of Alvin, Texas, and his family to run the family ranch and business interests, never losing his commitment to the public and to spreading the gospel of good health.

Diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 1983, Ryan learned to cope with the debilitating joint disorder by staying active and maintaining joint flexibility through aerobic exercise and weight training. The strategy paid off.

While contemporaries retired to the dugout, Ryan racked up another decade of baseball (and records). His wife, a former tennis champion, and the couple's three children share Nolan's passion for staying fit. For the Ryans, it's simply a way of life.

The Post caught up with Nolan Ryan in his hometown of Alvin, Texas, to learn more about his life after professional baseball, career highlights, and the pivotal role fitness plays in the life of his family.

Q: You and your wife teamed up with the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and other organizations to write The Nolan Ryan Fitness Guide and The Nolan & Ruth Ryan Guide to Active Living with Arthritis. Why did you decide to step forward and write books urging Americans to adopt a healthier lifestyle?

A: As a youth, you envision people with arthritis and other joint-related problems but don't really understand what people go through during the aging process. While I was still pitching for the Rangers, my knee was scoped, and the orthopedist told me that I had a lot of arthritis in my knee. It surprised me. I thought arthritis was something that only elderly people had. But the more I looked into arthritis, the more I realized that people of all ages are affected by the disease, so I began asking the orthopedic doctors what to do about it.

Their recommendation was to continue to live an active lifestyle and exercise-the best treatment for arthritis. Often when people experience discomfort and pain in their joints, they become inactive and lose the flexibility of their jointsjust the opposite of what they need to be doing. Being an athlete all these years, I didn't have any understanding of it and felt that people who weren't involved in professional sports and athletics probably had even less understanding of the disease.

Q: Osteoarthritis is often described as the "wear and tear" form of arthritis. Do your colleagues in professional sports suffer from this problem?

A: Very much so. It is an overuse injury. In my case, it was probably due to all the pitches that I made over the years, along with the running and the bouncing and the twisting motion that my knee underwent from pushing off the mound.

Q: At what age were you diagnosed, and how did you cope with the problem?

A: I was diagnosed at 46. I continue to work out and stay active. If I overexert myself or do something that irritates my knee, I take something like Advil or ice my knee, if I feel that it is going to swell on me.

Q: The old school of thought was that if injured, lay off activity and rest, but that actually isn't the best medicine.

A: No, it isn't, and that is basically our message. You need to continue to stay active and keep that joint as fluid as possible, so that you don't lose your range of motion and flexibility.

Q: With all the measures that you took, did osteoarthritis affect your career in any way?

A: No. I started experiencing the problem during the last year of my career. Osteoarthritis wasn't the reason why I retired, but the condition made me aware that I had to focus more on keeping my knee flexible by working out and avoiding things that would aggravate it. I continue to maintain my conditioning level.

Q: What is the central message in the book you wrote for the President's Council?

A: We did several programs with the Advil Forum on Health Education, approaching the subject from the point of view of the young athlete starting out who may not really understand what to do about athletic injuries-the RICE (rest-ice-compress-elevate) regimen, for example. In the book, we tried to help athletes and all people who want to live an active lifestyle gain a better understanding of what they are experiencing, so that if problems come up, they know what they can do to prevent them, and what is normal and what isn't.

Q: To millions of fans, you certainly are a baseball legend and an American hero. Do you plan on becoming more active in the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to help spread the gospel of fitness and good health?

A: That would really depend on if the president wanted me to be actively involved.

Q: Was physical fitness always part of your life?

A: When I arrived at the high school level, I began understanding the relationship of fitness and athletic performance. As I went through my baseball career, I was always looking for more information on the latest techniques or conditioning exercises that would help my athletic performance. I always had that attitude.

When I first broke into the major leagues, pitchers weren't allowed to do weightlifting or weight training. They just ran us. But I felt that total body conditioning would make me a better athlete. I came to the Astros in 1980, and they were the first organization I had been involved with that had a conditioning coach-whose name was Dr. Gene Coleman.

For the first time, I met someone with a better understanding of what pitchers needed to do to be in peak condition. We developed exercises for pitchers focusing on areas pitchers need to concentrate on, such as the decelerators, accelerators, and abdominal exercises.

Q: For many of today's top competitive baseball players, such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, year-round fitness is part of their regimen. Were you a pioneer in all-around conditioning and fitness?

A: I really was. I came along when the field of sports medicine was just starting to evolve. Today's athletes are probably better conditioned than any group of athletes in the history of sports. Much of that has to do with the fact that the salaries are such that athletes don't need to concern themselves with off-season jobs. But the sports medicine industry has also evolved. Awareness of preventive medicine and conditioning techniques and the availability of modern equipment are greater now than ever before.

Q: With a 27-year career, do you attribute your longevity in the sport to the fitness regimen that you maintained over the years?

A: It certainly played a role along with genetics. The aging process affects each of us differently. While you cannot stop the aging process, you can slow it down. My goal was to slow it down as much as possible. It became a lifestyle with me, and a challenge to play and compete on that level as long as I possibly could.

Q: What was your daily diet then, and what is it now?

A: Nutrition also became part of my lifestyle. I probably don't eat as much protein today as when I was an active player, but I have maintained basically the same eating habits, incorporating a lot of fruits and vegetables into my diet. During my professional career, my nutritional habits were directed at being an athlete. Today, my diet is to maintain good health.

Q: Is your wife also involved in sports and exercise?

A: Yes, she has always been a competitive tennis player and lived a very active life. We raised our children around sports and introduced them to our lifestyle. It's been a way of life for our family, and something that we all enjoy. Ruth and I feel very good about our children's attitude about taking care of themselves, working out, and getting proper nutrition.

Q: Teaching your children the value of health and fitness sets a good example for other parents. There is a growing trend of inactivity and obesity in American youth.

A: As a parent, I think that teaching your children the importance of health and fitness is one of your responsibilities. Today in our country, we fall very short in that area, as evidenced by the problem of obesity that we are developing. Our kids are becoming less and less active, and we don't even have physical education in schools anymore, which is one area that we need to address by starting with youth as they enter the school system to help them understand the importance of nutrition and active living.

Each of us is different. We need to develop standards where during the course of the school year, kids improve from day one until the end of the school year on a personal basis, not comparing them to other students.

Q: Do we need to raise the priority of physical education in schools?

A: Very much so.

Q: You grew up playing Little League baseball, and it is still a popular sport. Do you think that sports such as baseball are a good way for kids to get into shape?

A: Getting involved in sports is very good. The one inroad that we have truly made in this country is the involvement of girls in sports. When I was growing up, they didn't offer those opportunities to girls. But any way that you can get kids outdoors and active-whether in team or individual sports, such as gymnastics or tennis-is beneficial.

Organized sports are a very good vehicle for that, as long as we don't lose our perspective. We should look at organized sports as a building block and foundation for kids and not as a venue to make them professional athletes.

The worst thing in youth sports today is the involvement of the adults who stress winning at all costs. Competition and teamwork are very important and teach us many lessons, including the responsibility of being in the best shape that you can be to perform at your best level. I am a strong believer that there are many lessons of life that can be learned through team sports and competition, but it has to be kept in perspective. It's not 'winning at all costs,' but rather 'being the best that you personally can be.'

Q: Are your three children involved in sports?

A: Both of my boys played college baseball at Texas Christian University. My daughter was a volleyball player in high school and could have played in college, but chose not to compete on that level. They are still very active with tennis and golf, and they both work out on a regular basis. As a family, when the kids are all home or go on vacation, we usually try to go somewhere where we can play golf together.

Q: Is finding an exercise you enjoy a key ingredient to success in staying fit and active?

A: I think so. I hear people say that they hate to get on a stationary bicycle or to go to the weight room. My response is, 'Find something that you enjoy.' If you don't enjoy what you are doing, you will find reasons not to do it. But if you enjoy it, you will make a point of doing it. It doesn't matter if daily exercise means taking a nature walk, working in your yard, playing a friendly game of tennis, or heading out to the golf course, but it has to be something that you enjoy.

Q: Was retiring from baseball a major adjustment?

A: It was a very major adjustment. In my mind, I saw many of my ex-teammates have a real problem adjusting to no longer being a professional competitive athlete. But because I played for so long and developed many other interests, I had activities that I enjoyed, such as my ranching operation and business interests, to occupy my time. I thought that I could step away from the mound and into those activities on a full-time basis without an adjustment problem. But it took me two years to get over not playing ball. It is something that I had done my entire adult life-something that dominated my life. It was a much harder transition than I anticipated.

Q: Can you share a couple of the most memorable moments in your long career?

A: When I look back on memorable moments in my career, the reasons that they are so meaningful is the fan involvement in those accomplishments, such as my 5,001 strikeout that night in Arlington Stadium. When I got to the stadium, I could feel the electricity in the air and the excitement of the fans. It was different than just another game. The fans got there early. There was a buzz in the air. Those people and their appreciation of what I was trying to accomplish made that experience very special to me and added to the moment.

On the seventh no-hitter, just the fact that it came so late in my career and it happened in Arlington Stadium made it special. You don't anticipate those eventsthey just happen. When they do, they are very special. Add to that the fact that I was able to accomplish it at home with the fans who had been very supportive of me.

Q: Certainly, genetics plays a part in athletic success. But your message to Americans, both young and old alike, is that fitness is something that can be achieved, and you are urging people to take steps to do that for your personal good.

A: Fitness should be part of everyone's life and lifestyle. It will make their lives much more enjoyable. We are all trying to enjoy the opportunities and health that we have. We can enhance those things through working out.

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