When Brett Ishihara runs or swings for the tennis ball there’s often some pain. The 19-year-old was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) when he was 13, but it didn’t keep him from attending an elite tennis training camp and boarding high school, where he trained several hours a day, and from moving on after graduation to play Division I tennis at Loyola University Maryland.
“I’m not going to lie,” he says. “It can pretty rough sometimes, but life is full of bumps and we have to work with what we have. Ever since I was young I’ve always wanted to be a tennis player — to be good, to be up there [competitively]. Going through the setbacks of [AS] has made me want that more.”
As an athletic kid growing up in from Redondo Beach, Calif., Ishihara surfed, ran, and played a lot of tennis. Unexplained joint pain would come and go, starting when he was around 10 years old.
“I had pain in my heel when I was running cross country in the seventh grade. I would be running and and I’d have to stop just because my heel was so bad; my feet, my ankle, there was just all kinds of stuff constantly happening,” he says.
It was his back, however, that caused his worst pain, and in eighth grade it became debilitating. “Every day I practiced, I would put Icy Hot on, do stretches, go in the hot tub before I played, and do all this stuff,” he says. “There wasn’t anything that made the pain go away, and each day it would get worse.”
He saw a spinal surgeon who quickly diagnosed AS, and Ishihara began getting a biologic medication, which brought his disease under better control.
The forced physical inactivity during his AS flare led to some weight gain, and Ishihara worked hard to get the extra pounds off.
“I had to figure out how to lose weight, how to eat properly, and to get through what was definitely a pretty tough time for me,” he says. “Probably one of the toughest parts for me was that, when I was in a lot of pain, I couldn’t go outside and I couldn’t do things; it’s hard when you're sitting in the house all day and doing school work, and then you get this dinner, and it’s all this super healthy stuff and you’re thirteen or fourteen!”
It was rough going, but Ishihara now feels the struggle has left him in stronger shape — physically and mentally — than before.
“I was able to get my body in better condition and get in better shape as I grew up. I continue to manage it, it’s a lifestyle and not just something you do once or twice, but changing my lifestyle meant I was able to go outside and play tennis every day for two or three hours,” he says.
Last August Ishihara traveled to Philadelphia for a different kind of training: as a mentor for the Arthritis Foundation’s new iPeer2Peer Program. The program matches teens with juvenile arthritis and related childhood rheumatic diseases with a young adult mentor like Ishihara, who has learned to manage their disease.
“I’m not super open about my AS, but one of the things I really wanted to do was give some value to the community that helped me be able to do what I’m able to do now. I thought I should really spend some of my time and put some effort into making a difference,” says Ishihara, who, at the time this story was published, was waiting to be paired with a mentee.
What else his future holds is still unclear, but Ishihara is confident in his abilities. He’s currently taking a semester off from university, playing tennis on the competitive circuit and applying for transfer to University of California, Irvine, where he will continue to study psychology.
He thinks a master’s degree in the field might be something he’d like to pursue, but the lure of playing competitive tennis is also strong.
“Right now I’m trying to become a better tennis player and then see where I am when I graduate,” he says. “Then, I’ll be able to make a decision about what I want to do, but I’ve got some time, so embrace it, right?”