Venus Williams

Sjögrens and Bear It

In the summer of 2011, Venus Williams was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease known as Sjögrens syndrome (pronounced “show-grins.”) For years, Venus had battled mysterious symptoms on the court, such as shortness of breath, fatigue and muscle pain. She continued to push on, banishing thoughts from her brain that she might be unwell. For Venus, pain is a mental game, something you can outthink and get over. She once tore three inches of her psoas — a muscle that circles the pelvis and inserts near the lumbar spine — during the first set of a match. She won in three sets.

When the symptoms began to manifest off the court, however, the idea started to blossom in her mind that the pain and fatigue was not mental, that it had a profound physical source. She was officially diagnosed with Sjögrens syndrome in July of 2011.

“It was actually a relief to get a diagnosis because I didn’t feel like I was crazy anymore, that I wasn’t in shape, that I was feeling how I was feeling for a reason,” she says. “But it definitely took a long time accept that I had a disease. It took me almost a year to realize that I have Sjögrens. I am just coming to acceptance.”

Sjögrens syndrome is systemic autoimmune disease that attacks tear and saliva glands. The hallmark symptoms are dry eyes and mouth, but the condition can cause a wide spectrum of misery, from gastrointestinal distress to numb extremities to tooth decay. There is no cure fore Sjögrens syndrome. Instead, the various symptoms are treated with a variety of prescription medications and lifestyle changes.

“I could be a lot worse. I feel pretty fortunate,” says Venus, who has implemented a vegan/raw foods diet with success. “I could have kidney failure or feel like my eyes are on fire or my teeth could fall out. Medication and diet work really well for me. I am lucky.”

Like a true athlete, she experienced a few dark moments when she considered what her career would have been like without Sjögrens, the points she should have scored, the matches she should have won.

“It bothered me for a while, but someone told me something recently. They said, ‘Being angry about something that happened in the past is insanity because you cant change it.” And I don’t want to be insane, because I am already kind of crazy!” she laughs.

The return to tennis has been tentative. While her daily medication and holistic treatments are paying off, she never knows how she will feel from one day to the next. A lifelong athlete, she now has to rediscover her physical boundaries.

“I’ve been getting better and I’ve been able to play long matches. But I’m still in the process of figuring things out,” says Venus. “There’s a lot of discovery going on, looking for the right set of things that will make it perfect. Or realizing that maybe it will never be perfect. I am in the process.”