“Shark Tank” Judge Barbara Corcoran on the Injury She Believed Would End Her Career…and Why She Has No Plans to Retire
"I was worried that what I had known as my very active life was going to come to a screeching halt," Barbara Corcoran says in an exclusive interview. Corcoran's orthopedic surgeon has shared the secret that made her recovery surprisingly seamless.
Barbara Corcoran has overcome a lot in her life. The Shark Tank star and entrepreneur struggled during school, dealt with dyslexia and had trouble holding down a job in her twenties until she famously turned $1,000 into one of the biggest real estate companies, The Corcoran Group, which she sold for $66 million in 2001. After years of working nonstop—starring on TV, motivational speaking, a podcast, mentoring new business owners, and investing in startups—Corcoran has had no plans to retire.
That was until a shoulder injury Corcoran suffered while playing tennis left her arm limp and immobile, with debilitating pain. Unable to do simple tasks around the house, she thought her career and active life was over.
This week, Corcoran spoke with The Healthy @Readers Digest to share her story for the first time about the surgery she was terrified of, and her inspiring recovery that has this 74-year-old entrepreneur back on the tennis courts, ski slopes, and full-force at work. Today Barbara Corcoran is proof that life doesn’t have to stop just because of age.
Barbara Corcoran on her shoulder injury
The Healthy @Readers Digest: Thank you for taking the time to share your story. You experienced this terrible shoulder injury that you’ve said feared would be potentially career-ending. What happened?
Barbara Corcoran: I had an older injury on my shoulder from skiing that gave me a little discomfort, but you learn to live with stuff. However, I then fell flat on my shoulder and thought I broke it playing tennis. And I didn’t think it would be so bad, but I had never felt pain as severe as that.
Once I fell on the tennis court, I was scared to death I would lose my career. I give speeches for a living. For the most part, I live on a plane, and I couldn’t focus anymore. That was surprising. I was losing my train of thought. I actually wondered if I’d hurt my head instead! But the pain was too uncomfortable. I was worried that what I had known as my very active life was going to come to a screeching halt. I visited my doctor and he said, “I could do surgery and I think you’ll get the full use of your arm back”—and I had heard horror stories from so many people who had shoulder surgery that it’s the worst surgery. But I was willing to do that, if I could get my shoulder back.
The Healthy: It’s quite a switch in roles to go from being a self-assured business person to a vulnerable patient, placing all your trust in these healthcare professionals. Can you talk about that experience?
Corcoran: Well, I had the good fortune of having many knee injuries through skiing over the years. I had Dr. Altchek operate on my knees three times. So I had total confidence in the doctor. I thought he was the best at what he did. Everything went off without a hitch. So at the back of my mind, I thought, At least I have Dr. Altchek, and I hope he doesn’t retire before I can reach him. I just knew if there was any way that I could be back to myself, so to speak, he would get me back.
Barbara Corcoran on her surgery & recovery
The Healthy: So how did the surgery go?
Barbara Corcoran: I told him how concerned I was with the surgery because all my friends and my husband had shoulder surgeries, the recovery was not pleasant at all. I told him that’s what I was worried about. And he said he was going to put a balloon in my shoulder, which I had not heard about. I later found out it wasn’t common at all.
He said the recovery wouldn’t be as bad as I was making it up to be. He said I was physically strong, and I was going to recover just as well as I did from the knee surgery. So I believed him somehow, or tried to believe him.
After the balloon surgery, it was so much easier than I expected. I think I wore the sling for three months and then I couldn’t do any physical activity, like skiing again, for another three months. So it was a long wait for me to be out of commission for six months. But the moment I came out of the surgery, I had my energy right back. I had no pain whatsoever, which was a miracle.
I scheduled a bike trip with my family in Europe, for exactly six months after the surgery. So I had something to look forward to. I got on that bike, I think I biked better than ever. I felt like a power woman.
The Healthy: That’s incredible. Having a goal to look forward to can be powerful, mentally. In terms of your recovery, what do you think was different about your experience than that of your husband and your friends? What helped you?
Barbara Corcoran: Dr. Altchek told me a lot of that is because I was in great physical condition—which was true because I work out and I keep myself active.
The Healthy: So you’re already back with your active lifestyle, tennis, ski slopes. You mentioned the bike tour. Has there been any fear about that, following your injury? And what does your active lifestyle look like now?
Barbara Corcoran: Well, it’s the same as it’s always been, but I have more confidence than I had before the surgery. I think I was a little nervous on that first bike trip. I kept thinking, What if I fall? What if I fall?
I didn’t fall. But once that was under my belt, I felt like somebody gave me a ticket back into heaven. And with more appreciation than ever as to the freedoms—I had to do whatever I wanted and the physical capacity to be able to do them. After six months, I went on a ski trip—and I’ll tell you, when I went down that mountain, I was a bird again. I was flying down the mountain with the freedom of the air around me like my feet weren’t on the ground. And it was just as delicious, if not more so than it had ever been.
Barbara Corcoran on her career
The Healthy: You’re the epitome of a woman who fought for her place in professional environments where there aren’t a lot of women present. A lot of readers will relate to this. What felt like was at stake for you?
Barbara Corcoran: Oh, my career. Because if I couldn’t be the high energy person that people hired all the time, to motivate other people to say, “Life is great, and this is how your life could be better!” When I was down and out myself, I couldn’t fake it—I’m too genuine.
And so getting up in front of an audience, I was flying at half-mast. So I really thought it would be a courtesy to the audience for me to leave the stage. Period. It was mostly in my head, a battle of the head, wasn’t it? But it was real, the pain. I couldn’t do the activities that I thrived on. I loved skiing. I loved biking every morning in Central Park. I loved jogging. I loved any sport. You throw it at me and I felt like I was living life. And without that kind of enthusiasm, it affected everything I did. I felt old, honestly.
The Healthy: You’re in your seventies now, and still extremely active.
Barbara Corcoran: Who told you that? Who told you that? You’re wrong, Laura! No, I think I’m in my forties!
The Healthy: Well, you look like you’re in your forties. That part is very true. And you act like you’re in your forties. How does continuing in your thriving career stimulate you? And why is it so important to you where many people in your situation with the financial resources and accolades behind them, would maybe retire and sit on a beach in Bermuda?
Barbara Corcoran: I tried to retire once and I learned my lesson. When I sold my business, I was 50. I had a ton of cash. I could do whatever I wanted and I said, “I’m going to retire. I’m going to do all the things I didn’t do in my life now because I worked so hard.”
So I signed up for an Italian cooking class and I took the cooking class. And that day I said, “I’m not retiring. This is not for me.” It was nothing like I thought it would be. It was a great class, but I knew my husband would leave me sooner or later if I was going to be at home with him all the time. I didn’t know where to put my energy. I knew I’d ruin my kids by focusing too much on them. And I was lonely without the team that I worked with. I mean, I never realized how important it was to me to be part of a team, trying to run up a mountain with a group of people I loved with me. Retirement wasn’t for me—not just me, but everyone who has built a business, a lot of entrepreneurs, are never happy again when they sell their business. I witnessed that over and over again.
Barbara Corcoran’s self-care routine
The Healthy: That’s beautiful. What is your healthcare routine in terms of nutrition and exercise? I think you’re an inspiration to a lot of people.
Barbara Corcoran: Well, you won’t want to use this part because on nutrition, I don’t even think about it. I eat whatever I want. And my favorite food is lime potato chips. So I imagine if anyone analyzed my diet, they’d probably say it was very unhealthy. But I don’t worry about it because I don’t seem to be unhealthy. So I won’t change it until I find out.
But I am very dogged about my physical workout. I work out with a trainer three days a week. And thank God, when I had my first baby at 46, I had a friend who gave me a gift of her trainer for three sessions. And I did it coming out of the hospital right away, to get it out of the way basically and to tell [my friend] I did it. And I never ever stopped.
Not only does it keep me firm and in good physical shape, but more than that, it makes a difference in my head. If I have to skip a workout, I’m not as mentally alert. I can’t think as well—I just can’t. I’m not in the same state. My confidence isn’t as good, which is weird.
The Healthy: Are there any other self-care practices you refuse to skip?
Barbara Corcoran: I ride my bike all the time. I don’t think of that as healthcare, but I think of it as…worry-free. You can’t be on a bike and worry about something, it’s impossible. And not just me, I’ve talked to other people about it who bike. And I’m not talking about serious biking, like a hundred miles. I don’t do that. I bike my little pedals around Central Park, but at the minute you’re on the bike, you’re 12 years old again.
The Healthy: Tell us how you’re seeing things today.
Barbara Corcoran: What I think I have learned through the injury, is a lot about aging. Aging sucks in my opinion. That’s how I feel about it. It’s really like you just watch yourself physically look less attractive and be less able. Fortunately, I’m just as able as I ever was—thank God for the balloon surgery. I think you have to, when you get older, appreciate all the things that you’re supposed to appreciate. But aging is really just not so good. I’m not into aging at all. I’d like to avoid it.
The Healthy: I think that’s relatable. My mom always says, getting old sucks. But the alternative is worse.
Barbara Corcoran: Yeah, that’s true. I’m not going there ever, though.