Exclusive: Venus Williams’ Olympic Day message: “It’s about perception and enjoying yourself”

The four-time gold medallist in tennis spoke exclusively to Olympics.com about resilience and the importance of mental health in celebration of Olympic Day (23 June). Plus, watch the interview.
By Nick McCarvel

What if Venus Williams’ life had gone another route? What if she had chosen a different Olympic sport to pursue at a young age.

What would have been?

“Honestly, I think it would have been track and field,” the tennis legend told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview ahead of Olympic Day (23rd June). “I would have been a sprinter. Four-hundred or 200... maybe even 800.”

It’s easy to imagine the 6 foot 1 (1.85m) Williams, a four-time Olympic gold medallist and 23-time major tennis champion in singles, doubles, and mixed, as an iconic athletics competitor too, but instead, the American has given tennis fans countless memories since turning pro in 1994, clad in the beads she and sister Serena wore in the early part of their ascendance.

For Olympic Day, Williams reflected on several topics in a recorded video interview, including the importance of resiliency in her career, and how she has prioritised her mental health.

The lessons she’s learned along the way reflect an athlete who is full of wisdom and been a leader both on and off the court, alongside Serena.

“I’ve never thought about not reaching my goals,” Williams said when asked about how she’s dealt with disappointment in her career. “It’s just a moment, but not a moment that defined me."

"I reset and refocus because there's still more I want to do... achieve. I think I've always been future-looking and not necessarily stuck in the moment, whether it was a win or a loss.” - Venus Williams

She added: “You just become more beautiful with the more that you fail.”

Williams has succeeded, plenty, too, winning the singles gold at Sydney 2000, then pairing up with Serena for golds at Sydney, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 in doubles before capturing the silver with Rajeev Ram in the mixed doubles event at Rio 2016.

Here, a part of that Olympic Day conversation with Venus, edited for clarity and length.

Olympic memories - and facing adversity

Olympics.com: What does the Olympics mean to Venus?*Venus:* Oh, well, I love the Olympics, I grew up watching all the documentaries, and so, yeah, it's [had] a really big impression [on me]. My dad really loved the Olympics, and I’ve just kind of inherited that from him.

Olympics.com: What sort of adversity [have you faced] that you feel like you've gained mental strength from in your career?*Venus*: What sort of adversity? Every day something doesn't go right: The ball doesn’t go in, something doesn’t go right, you twist the ankle, lose the match. That is being an athlete... it’s just rising up to that challenge every time. And, you know, once you've made it, that's not the end. It's like after that, you've got to keep going. So there's no mountain top. You have to earn it every single time. And there's a certain satisfaction towards that.

Olympics.com: You’ve faced so much adversity, from injuries to illness to other challenges. Were there steps along the way for you? Or did you kind of take things each day and go and face the next day as it comes?*Venus:* I don't look at it as adversity. I just look at it like, ‘This happening now. I've got work to do.’ And I just get busy. So I don't ever see anything as like a setback or those sorts of things. It's just for me is like, ‘OK, change the game plan. Now this happened, let's do this and get back to where we were.’

Olympics.com: You touched on this earlier, but we have some social media questions. @Poorvi.singh02 on Instagram asks, ‘What motivated you when there were times you felt like you couldn’t reach your goals?’*Venus:* Sometimes you don't get [to a goal] and you felt like you tried. So then, it’s like, ‘I have to be more prepared to do more, to try harder. I thought I really did it this time.’ But it's just bringing out the best in you; the most beautiful characteristics and qualities.

Olympics.com: Is that something you feel like you've been able to appreciate more as your career has gone on? Versus 15 or 20 years ago?*Venus:* I hate losing. But do I focus on it? No, I don't. I focus on how I'm going to win. So it doesn't matter how many times I lose. And I'm like, looking at the next one, [thinking] ‘I'm going to win. That’s going to be it.’

Venus and Serena, London 2012
Picture by IOC/John Huet

Venus: 'My job is to win matches'

Olympics.com: People are always like, 'what's the secret to Venus' success?' And I feel like there's no secret. I just feel like it's passion and that you love tennis, the taste of victory, the sense of accomplishment...*_Venus:_* Hard work! Definitely some good parents who definitely made it a great opportunity for me because sometimes you can't help where you're born. I really got the full hand, the full deck.

Olympics.com: OK, XavierTennis on Twitter writes, ‘What’s something you’d tell your younger self about playing professional tennis?’ ... which was 1994, Venus? But I want to add a caveat to that fan question of this: Do you wish that you knew what you know now or you're kind of happy that you went through everything that you've gone through?
Venus: Oh... 1994! No, you know there's a certain beauty about being wrong and not knowing things. You just go out there it’s pure, it's just pure. You go and you hit; you don't think and you just go for it. So no, I wouldn't take away that youth in that sense. It's a beautiful thing.

But of course, there's so many wonderful things that come with that experience, too. So every phase is important.

Olympics.com: This is from @CaseyTennis on Twitter. And Casey writes, ‘In the early years, critics shared harsh opinions on your and Serena's "muscular" builds. What toll did that take on how you perceived your own body or your fitness routine? Body image is a big issue for young women and often times get flack for being too skinny or too toned.’ How did you face those sort of criticisms at a young stage in your career?*Venus:* I don't know. I thought I was hot! (Laughs.) So those people, I don't know what they were saying. [But] they weren't out there [playing] at the level that I was so many times. [Some people], it's literally their job to talk to and write a story and sell a paper and be a commentator, whatever it is. My job was to win matches, and that's what I did.

So I was pretty focused on what I needed to achieve and I didn't get involved in all that other stuff. So I'm very happy that I wasn't. I don't read articles about myself. Recently, though, I did read one that caught the essence of me... that's why I read it. The headline was, ‘Venus Talks About Apple Pie’, and I was like, ‘They understand me!’

But no... I mean, it's all about what you think.

Olympics.com: Where does that come from? Your parents... or does that come from being one of five sisters? Where does that self-assurance come from?
Venus:
[Confers with sister, Isha, off-camera.] Yeah, a combination of both, Isha says... a combination of both. Definitely our parents... had to be strong.

"We were taught to be confident, strong women. And I believed what my parents told me. They brainwashed me in the very, very best way possible. My brain is clean!" - Venus Williams

'It's about your perception' - Venus Williams

Olympics.com: Was it, especially from ‘94 into the late 90s, was that hard to buy into the fact to just ignore all that stuff?
Venus:
I mean, I didn't think about that. Also looking back, I wasn't really cute. [Laughs.] Some questionable outfits, choices and styling...

Olympics.com: The beads were iconic.
Venus:
You know, I was 19 and had braces. You know, there were a few things... but at the time, I didn't know it. I thought I was great. So it doesn't really matter if you look great. It's about your perception. And can you enjoy yourself and enjoy your life, even if you may not be looking your best when looking back. But it's about your perception: The same amount of time you're telling yourself that you're not great, you could use that time saying you are. It’s how you choose to spend your time.

Olympics.com: OK, and lastly, I want to ask you, we've talked a lot today about winning, you've talked about the joy of winning. Why is winning important on the tennis court? And why is it important in life?
Venus:
Winning is important... I mean, if you can say it's important, it's important because it's about that process, right? So when you win, at the end, [then] you know that the process that you put in place is the right one. When you don't win, you know that there's some sort of chink in that process. Right? So you have to go back and look at the process and start over again and find how to get to the win. So winning is the reward, but it also tells you that you're doing the right thing. That's the best way to put it.

Olympics.com: Venus Ebony Starr Williams, thank you so much.

Venus: Thank you.