Luna Voices: Venus Williams on Raising Each Other Up
“I’ll be in your squad”
Late last year, professional tennis player and Clif Bar athlete, Venus Williams, joined Julie Foudy, former professional soccer player, at Clif Bar headquarters for a conversation about Williams’ career. The event was part of the LUNA Voices speaker series which aims to highlight the stories of inspiring women making breakthroughs in their field by standing up and speaking out against inequality and injustice.
After speaking with the packed room of Clif Bar employees, partners and athletes, Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam Champion and five-time Olympian invited questions from the audience. One of the first to raise a hand was Jordyn Barratt, a 21-year old professional skateboarder and fellow Clif Bar athlete. The 2020 Tokyo games was to be the first-time skateboarding is included as a medal sport included as a medal sport and Barratt was on the brink of qualifying for the tournament. She was anxious to glean advice from Williams.
Williams responded by sharing practical tips on what it’s like to be a member of Team USA at an Olympic Games, but she was mostly interested in offering her personal support and encouragement to the younger athlete:
“It’s going to be amazing for you to be the first person in your sport to be at the Olympics so if I can come to your game, I’ll be there! If the events are anywhere near each other, I’d love to see it and I’ll be in your squad.”
The crowd let out a collective “awww” as Williams publicly declared her support for Barratt and offered to be “in her squad.” The gesture from Williams’ was heartfelt and a wonderful example of the tennis player lending her support to a fellow, female athlete.
Unfortunately, the declaration of the global Covid-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization has led to a postponement of the games in Tokyo but both athletes hope to compete in 2021.
“You have nothing to lose when you’re right”
Standing up for and supporting fellow athletes has been a hallmark of Williams’ career and she has always been a steadfast advocate for women’s equality. In 2007, Wimbledon finally awarded women prize money that equaled their male counterparts after an unwavering fight that Williams led on behalf of the women.
“As a kid, you’re dreaming of playing tennis and you just want to win Wimbledon,” she recalls, “but then you get there and the prize money is not equal, and you can’t believe it!”
Williams admits that she did not have a grand plan to the lead the charge for equal prize money. Indeed, her only plan was to focus on playing great tennis. However, she was vocal about the pay disparities and in turn became the prominent spokesperson for the equal prize money movement in women’s tennis.
Notably, what surprised Williams back then was the work she had to do to gain the trust and support of fellow female players: “you’re trying to change minds of other women and convince them that they deserve this equal prize money!” Tennis is a global sport, and she understood that some women were from countries and societies where, at the time, women may not have been valued as much. Regardless, Williams was dedicated to the cause because she knew it was the right thing to do. “You have no fear when you know you’re right and we definitely had nothing to lose,” Williams remembers, “we only had to gain.”
“Let’s raise each other up”
The notion of having little or even nothing to lose is at the core of advice that Williams wants to pass on to her audience. If they face inequality in their lives, whether it’s in the workplace or another arena, she exhorts women to stand up and speak up. “People are okay hearing what you have to say,” she explains, “but if you don’t say it, they’ll never know. As long as you speak up, people will have heard you, consider you and will be aware of it, even if they are not in agreement.” Williams also acknowledges the generational shift that has occurred in recent years as more opportunities for women become available. “It’s no longer, ‘let’s dominate one another’,” she notes, “this generation has moved towards ‘let’s raise each other up!’”
Someday is now
Clif Bar’s “Someday Is Now” campaign around gender equality has particularly resonated with Williams, given her personal experiences with inequality and the experiences of the women that came before her. She is quick to point out that she owes her career to former professional tennis player, Billie Jean King, who founded the Women’s Tennis Association (“WTA”). “I have a job because of her,” she remarks, “and Billie Jean King has served a role for every female athlete, whether you ever meet her or not!” Williams is referencing King’s work in the 1972 passing of Title IX, the federal civil rights Act which prohibits sex discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports. Williams adds: “[King] has affected thousands and thousands of lives and she’s still looking to give more. I love that about her.”
As much as the situation for female athletes has evolved during Williams career as a professional on the global tennis circuit, she recognizes that the fight is not yet over. It’s why she’s so moved by the battle that the US Women’s National Team Players Association is waging against the U.S. Soccer Federation (“USSF”) as they sued USSF, accusing the federation of failing to treat the women’s team in a manner equivalent to the men’s national team. Williams is inspired that the team took the huge step to file a lawsuit ahead of the final match in France despite the potential distraction: “you’re trying to play in the biggest game of your sport and it’s not just for you,” underscores Williams, “it’s for your country, so you want to feel free and play with confidence but the women took that step and I admire that so much.”
Tennis is in a relatively privileged position when it comes to gender equality and overall prize money due to Williams’ own fight with the Wimbledon organizers and the work of Billie Jean King before her, but now she’d love to see other sports achieve that same level. “I work extremely hard to play tennis, but there are other athletes that are working just as hard but they’re also working a job too… I get to just play tennis!” Her “Someday is Now” dream is to see more athletes, women and men alike, earn a living from a broader variety of professional sports. “My Someday is Now dream would be just to be able to get many more sports to the level where the athletes can live comfortably.”
An inspiration on court as well as at home
With the postponement of tennis tournaments due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Williams currently finds herself at home for an extended period of time, an unusual situation for an athlete that normally travels around the world to compete for months of the year. As a professional tennis player, Williams still needs to maintain her fitness when not playing and she is encouraging and motivating others to stay in shape alongside her. Every weekday, Williams opens up her living room “virtually” via Instagram Live for a home fitness routine that anyone can do. The hour-long sessions typically include a special guest as Williams follows her natural instincts to lift up the community via fun and fitness during these challenging times.
Thank you, Venus Williams, for inspiring us the world over, whether it’s Centre Court or your own living room.