Sally Williams has battled chronic illnesses for most of her adult life and continues to work with a team of doctors in order to treat them. At 56 years old, Williams has now found the sport of pickleball and swears it is a driving force in her pursuit of wellness.
In her late 30s, Williams was diagnosed with CFSME, Fibromyalgia, and Meniere’s Disease, which caused her to have to stop working and completely limit her physical activity. She grew up playing a wide range of competitive sports, from tennis to swimming; but in adulthood, dealing with these chronic illnesses limited Williams to the point where she sometimes couldn’t even walk.
“With autoimmune disorders, my doctors would say, ‘You have to practice the art of pacing.’ That was the one thing I wasn’t good at; I was willing to change my diet, try acupuncture and reiki, anything to get myself back, but pacing was the hardest thing. If I had a day where I felt good, I would think I could go out and ride my bike for miles, and that just wasn’t the case.”
Williams had a pivotal moment while traveling two years ago when she found out that her infectious disease doctor, Dr. Angelo Scotti, had passed away. That day, she made a promise to live by Scotti’s wisdom and continue down the path he had set for her health by starting fresh and getting serious about pacing herself.
Not long after that, Williams was driving through her town of Rumson, New Jersey, when she passed by a local pickleball court that was filled with about 30-40 players. She decided to pull over and watch for a while, and that was the moment when it all seemed to click for her. After inquiring about the sport on social media, she was able to connect with Kim Smith, a coach from The Fort Athletic Club.
“I told her my whole story about all of my health problems – fatigue, neuro issues, balance issues, vision issues. She just said, ‘I just really believe this is for you. I think that if you keep working on the health side of things, I can get you into pickleball and this will be really good for you.’ After doing some lessons with her, we went to open play and it was great. Everybody was really nice, I played a few more games, and then I started setting goals.”
Williams joked that there’s something magical about pickleball: The moment you touch that paddle, you’re hooked! After a few more open-play outings and training sessions with Smith, Williams’ competitive spirit and athletic drive were reignited. Not only was the game itself allowing her to get back on her feet, but she also found it to be an incredible social outlet for connecting with the local community.
Focusing on her new health mantra of pacing, Williams knew she would have to initially start by playing pickleball just one day per week. However, she quickly started feeling stronger again by adding other wellness practices back into her daily routine. Yoga seemed to be the perfect balancing practice for pickleball, as it would allow her body to stretch and heal after playing intense pickleball matches.
By sticking to her wellness plan and practicing pickleball throughout the course of a year, Williams is now able to play five times every week, even playing twice a day on occasion. While she recognizes that there are still times when her body tells her she needs to rest, she also understands that will always be a part of her journey.
What started as a potentially fun outlet for exercise has become a full-blown passion for the sport, and Williams now believes that it has 100% changed her wellness journey. She has grown more mindful of her health practices and become physically stronger, not to mention she’s also lost 30 pounds along the way.
“Being mindful, honoring my body, taking care of myself. I also lost almost 30 pounds, which was not why I started playing and, in fact, I had no idea that was going to happen. Once I started playing pickleball, I put on some clothes I hadn’t worn in a while because of COVID, and they were too big. I hopped on the scale at one point and thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve lost 15 pounds.’ I had no idea that was happening.”
Because of the sudden weight loss, Williams went to her doctor and inquired about how to readjust her diet to maintain her weight while still continuing to grow stronger. Her diet was ultimately impacted for the better by adding protein supplements and adjusting her eating schedule. Pairing a revitalized body from pickleball with a disciplined diet has completely changed Williams’ physical and mental health.
“All of my blood work now is so much closer to that of a normal human being, my cholesterol came down 40 points, and my body shape has completely changed. I have muscles now that I haven’t had in years, my legs are stronger, and that has allowed my head to be clearer. I am so grateful, and pickleball is just so fun. There are just no downsides.”
Now, Williams plays pickleball at the competitive level, participating in a wide variety of tournaments and even medaling in a few. Her recent accomplishments include a gold medal at the May 2023 Dink Wars alongside her doubles partner Bruce Bilow and she currently has a DUPR rating of 3.94, closing in on her goal of 4.0 by the end of the year.
“Sharing my story is easy for me, but the point would be if it makes a difference for one person … I would like to encourage anybody not to give up. If you get an autoimmune diagnosis, whatever yours is, just don’t give up and believe that anything is possible.”
Beyond her passion for pickleball, Williams is also an animal lover. In particular, her love of cats has led Williams to found Mission Meow, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping other small feline-centric nonprofits get the funding they need through monthly grant cycles.
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