Venus Williams on tennis, health advocacy, and having ‘no limits’

Venus Williams has won seven Grand Slam singles titles, five at Wimbledon and two at the US Open. She’s also won four Olympic gold medals. To say she’s one of the all-time greatest tennis players is putting it lightly.

Add another important title to the list: patient advocate.

 Venus has been vocal about her experience with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and muscle and joint pain. (Her younger sister, Serena, is an advocate, too, penning a now-famous article on her experiences of nearly dying after giving birth to her daughter.)

Venus Williams spoke about her health journey and the impact on her career at the 2022 BIO International Convention in a candid conversation with Emmy-nominated sports reporter Erin Andrews, an advocate for women in sports and survivor of cervical cancer.

Venus Williams and Erin Andrews at the 2022 BIO International Convention

‘Having a diagnosis made me feel like I wasn’t crazy’

Having gone public with her diagnosis in 2011, Venus was able to finally put words to the extreme fatigue that she’d been feeling throughout her entire career.

Venus Williams at the BIO International Convention 2022“Prior to my diagnosis I just had this feeling like I could never get into shape and it made me feel lazy,” she told the standing-room-only ballroom. “I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and detached. It was so hard to get up and do the work, yet I still got up and I did the work. I kept talking to doctors about what was going on.”

When asked how she was able to push through she put it simply, “No limits.” 

“I have an illness where you look like you’re healthy, but you are not,” she explained. But getting the diagnosis was a beginning to William’s feeling empowered to move forward in concerted, healthy ways. 

“Having a diagnosis made me feel like I wasn’t crazy,” she said. “No one wants to be sick. No one wants to deal with a chronic illness. But at least with a diagnosis you can start to move forward and have some understanding about what you need to do.”

‘I just knew I had to get back to the Olympics’

For a while, her diagnosis took her out of the tennis sphere, but she learned that she could in fact continue to play with her Sjögren’s syndrome. So, she set her sights on the biggest sporting event in the world.

“What really lifted me was the [2016] Olympics. I just knew I needed to get back to the Olympics,” she said. “I definitely came back a lot sooner than I would have wanted to, but I just had to get to the Olympics.”

“I had to learn to not be afraid anymore and not have fear. So what I took from this diagnosis was to be fearless.”

So much of her battle with her diagnosis was mental, in a time that preceded mental health services in the professional sports space. “Often during a flare I can’t help but think, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘What did I do wrong?’”

But mental fortitude was something that Williams had been developing for years. In many ways, sports prepared her for the ups and downs of having an autoimmune disease.

“On the court there were definitely times when I walked off and I thought, ‘I don’t know how I did that.’ So you have to take limits off of your perception and keep pushing higher,” she said.

“One of the best things in tennis is being able to out endure your opponent. Often at the highest levels you have to push your opponent to the point where they say, ‘I give up. I can’t go up against you anymore.’”

Venus Williams and Erin Andrews at the 2022 BIO International Convention

‘A lot of good things have come out of the advocacy work’

Williams counts herself extremely lucky. Her family has always been a cornerstone to her life, career, and advocacy work. “My mom encouraged me to be an advocate because I just wanted to withdraw and be an introvert,” she recalled. “It is hard to show weakness, especially as an athlete. But I think a lot of good things have come out of the advocacy work.”

Watching her sister succeed has also given her strength to move forward, she said, taking a moment to talk Serena up: “Did you guys hear that Serena is playing Wimbledon?”

“She was the first one to get a Grand Slam and seeing her get that really drove me to get my own,” she said.

What’s Williams’ biggest piece of advice?

“Life is about enjoying yourself,” she said, “and being able to look back even at the worst of times and being able to say, ‘I enjoyed that.’” Diagnosis, or not.

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