I’m not a tennis fan and typically get quickly bored watching the game. But over the past few weeks, Serena Williams has grabbed my attention. I’m fascinated by her energy, facial expressions and her game.
FYI – I’ve been following the human interest story of Venus and her younger sister, Serena, over the years. Growing up in Compton, CA, they became elite athletes at a young age and have competed into their 30’s at the highest level of the sport. They seem to exude grace and class.
So, I was sad to read that Venus had been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s a few years ago Like many, I figured this was the end of her career, at least as a top athlete. Silly me.
She showed us how wrong we were the other night when she played her sister, Serena, in what was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I won’t go into the details of the nail biting closer . Yes, Serena was playing to win a Grand Slam. But I’m more interested in Venus’s accomplishment and what it showed me about my own biases.
I’m not talking about race or gender but about illness bias.
As Serena and Venus first walked out onto the court for the opening match, I commented to my husband, “Venus isn’t well. Look how she’s hunched over — and how tired her face looks.” Huh? I’d hadn’t seen her play in a few years yet I felt confident in my assumption.
Why? Because I’d read that she has a debilitating chronic illness. I’ve also read her own occasional comments about Sjogren’s and how tired she’s been. I thought I knew what she was experiencing.
But my thinking was based on what I thought I saw. Before she even took a swing, I underestimated her because I assumed she was playing hampered by illness. But however tired and weak she might feel at times or even last night, she played like a super star. After barely winning the match, Serena told a reporter and the crowd that this was her toughest game yet and that Venus is her most difficult competition. She didn’t say, ‘on her good days’ or ‘when she’s up to it’. Venus embodies beauty, strength and working with a chronic illness!
So here’s my take on what this means to the rest of us poor slobs who don’t play at elite levels but are just trying to get by.
Knowing that this highly talented competitor lives with an illness, I made assumptions that completely underestimated her capacity. My last post was on ‘disclosure’ and I believe that there are times it is in our best interest. But it’s a complicated issue because once people know that you have any kind of ‘handicap’, something that could get in your way, it’s hard for them not to layer that notion onto whatever you do.
Bottom line? There’s no right or wrong thing to do around disclosing illness but we get into trouble when the biases that lead to incorrect assumptions are ignored.