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I’m Your Venus

By Melissa Foss
Posted On Jan 08, 2014

It’s a comeback for the record books. Diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that left her too weak to compete in the sport she dominated for a decade, tennis star Venus Williams went vegan. And it changed her life.

Story By: Laurie Sandell

Williams was told that a vegan diet could help her manage the disease. “I thought vegans were strange people who ate plants all day,” she admits. “I was totally against it.” A friend told her about the three-week “Life Transformation” program at the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida. Williams signed up for a week and brought her sister, Serena, along for moral support. They ended up completing the program, emerging transformed. Venus returned to tennis just in time to qualify for the US Olympic team.

Prior to switching to a plant-based vegan food regime, Venus admits she lived on a diet of “meat and candy.” “Willy Wonka SweeTarts and Nerds were my best friends,” she says. “Every now and then I’ll look in an old purse, find a bag of Fruit Gushers, and think, That was my old life.” Transitioning to a diet that is high in wheatgrass and green drinks was not easy. “When you first go vegan—especially raw—your body has to detox, so you go through an adjustment period,” she says. “You feel tired. You might get headaches and have other side effects. After about a week, you’re fine, but when you first introduce cooked foods, they feel heavy in your stomach. And too much sugar makes you feel like you’re having a hangover.”

Another friend led the Williams sisters to personal chef Lauren Von Der Pool, who has served on Michelle Obama’s obesity campaign and worked as an apprentice to celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. “When I first arrived at their home, I had to do a whole kitchen cleanout,” recalls Von Der Pool. “I put labels on every container for the dried goods, organized their spices and herbs, and threw out their chips and seasoning salt. It was typical of what most people have in their kitchens when they’re not exactly conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies. [The sisters] were pretty good about letting it all go.”

Von Der Pool moved in with Venus and Serena. She now travels and lives with them full-time. A typical breakfast begins with wheatgrass and a vegan protein shake. During tournaments, they eat a lot more. At those times, they start with a homemade patty with tons of vegetables and whole sprouted grain bread, French toast, or cereal. Lunch consists of a big salad with sunflower, pea, or alfalfa sprouts; green, leafy vegetables; and some carbs such as sprouted quinoa, spelt grain, or rice pasta. Snacks are kale chips, roasted pumpkin seeds, and various fruits. For dinner, Von Der Pool might prepare a red vegetable curry with rice and naan bread, a second sprouted salad, and a second or third green juice.

A confessed picky eater, Williams stays away from bell peppers and is “afraid” of Asian noodles. “The texture kills me,” she groans. There are foods that Williams merely tolerates, according to Von Der Pool, such as coconut juice. “She has to drink it because it has the highest amount of electrolytes found in nature,” says Von Der Pool. “It does one hundred times more than Gatorade and has no sugar or coloring.”

Despite Williams’ huge transformation, she’s admits she’s far from perfect. She calls herself a “Chegan”— someone who’s vegan, but cheats. “I’m always in the middle of thinking about cheating, or in a cheat session,” she laughs. “I might pick off the plate of the person sitting next to me. If someone brings me a cheese plate, I’m going to have some. At last year’s Superbowl, I was surrounded by candy, ice cream, sodas, cake, and popcorn. I lost it and went crazy. I woke up the next morning and felt awful. I thought, Well, I guess this is working!”

I have a motto,” says Venus Williams. “Doing the right thing is never as easy as doing the wrong thing. But by doing the right thing, you stay fit and trim.” The 2-year-old tennis power-house has just stepped o a plane from Australia. Williams has thrown on warm-up pants and a long-sleeve pink T-shirt from EleVen, her collection of athletic wear. “I’ve got to start hard and heavy tomorrow,” she insists. In this moment she appears as driven as a person could be; it’s the kind of palpable determination that wins Grand Slams. It’s hard to believe that two short years ago, she had to withdraw from the US Open, too tired to compete. “I felt like someone was pushing me down,” she recalls. Following a battery of tests, Williams was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disor-der that causes extreme fatigue and debilitating joint pain. “I had to qualify for the US Olympic team,” she recalls. “I would not have been able to live if I couldn’t.”

“She doesn’t complain about the diet,” sighs Von der Pool. “She just cheats. I find things in her room that shouldn’t be there and I’ll say, ‘What is going on with this? Are you kidding me?’ She’ll respond, ‘That’s not mine.’ Really? All I see is a wrapper and a crumb on your mouth!’” Von Der Pool laughs, citing progress rather than perfection. “When you’re aware of what you’re putting in your body you can make more conscious decisions,” says the charming chef.

The ideal ratio for wellness is to eat twenty percent cooked and eighty percent raw food, Von Der Pool offers. “It’s about keeping the body alkalined, but it doesn’t have to get boring. You can do raw rolls, raw sushi, tacos, and raw ‘meatloaf.’” The star hasn’t had to give up her sweet tooth entirely. Von Der Pool tries to stave off Williams’s candy wrapper habit with blueberry muffins and raw lemon cheesecake.

The dietary shift has led to a big difference in Williams’s weight—but at 6’1”, she’s the only one who notices. “I definitely dropped all of my sugar weight,” she says. “Your body can’t help but run leaner when you take out the excess calories. I’ve never been a big fan of diets and don’t think they work. I say, ‘Not too much and not too often.’” Since going vegan, Williams has become obsessed with more than just leafy greens. She’s fallen in love with organic beauty products. “I learned that the skin is the biggest organ of elimination, so now I think about what I put on my skin as well as what I put into my body,” she says. “Eating raw makes your skin look gorgeous, which is a huge motivation to keep doing it.” She says that she buys moisturizers and face products from the Body Deli, and brings her own soaps to hotels.

Williams finds her greatest peace in her fitness routine, a constant in her life since childhood. “A workout routine is so important,” she stresses. “It gives you energy, keeps you moving, and helps your body stay fit. It’s best to get into a routine so that when you don’t do it, you feel guilty. It’s not about killing yourself. Not everyone is going to play professional sports, but it’s about having a routine you enjoy, mixing it up, and not working so hard that you’re scared to go back to the gym.”

Her single biggest motivation for pushing herself is simple: “I hate to lose.” Even if she doesn’t win a match, she wants to look back on a performance knowing that she gave it everything she had; to walk away with no regrets. “People who aren’t motivated by losses won’t make it to the highest level,” she insists. “Even when I’m off the court, I don’t want to be defeated.”

It’s obvious from her work in fashion—her second passion—that she operates at peak performance, 24 hours a day. She launched EleVen by Venus Williams last year, inspired by her wardrobe in the Summer Olympics. Venus insisted on being very hands-on, rather than slapping her name on a brand and letting someone else do the work. She spends several days every few months sketching, handing her drawings to a creative partner who puts them into a computer. They spend the next two to three months creating colors and prints, and cutting and adding designs.

The samples are made in Williams’s size so she knows exactly how she feels in each piece. Her first live fashion show at New York’s Fashion Week featured athletes skipping rope, players hitting tennis balls across a net, and yogis contorting themselves into acrobatic poses. Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley received it very well, calling it “the most original fashion performance art show in Fashion Week” via a tweet.

“Normally with sportswear, you don’t get to express who you are,” Venus explains. “That’s what makes EleVen different. I wanted to create a collection that is about saying who you are. I’ve always dreamed of florals, so I put them into the collection. This year, my dream was watercolor. For summer, we’ll do tie-dye. More than anything, it’s about my vision.”

As it’s been since she first grabbed the world’s attention, Williams’s vision keeps her at the top of her game: “I’ve spent my whole career being an individual,” she declares. “I don’t want to be known as ‘that vegan.’ I just want to be me.”