An Interview with Annabelle Williams, Paralympic Gold Medallist

An Interview with Annabelle Williams, Paralympic Gold Medallist

Many of us struggle to juggle our day-to-day tasks. Not to mention juggling our jobs with our hobbies, friends and family and staying fit and healthy. Annabelle Williams, on the other hand, is someone who seemingly manages to ‘do it all’.

Not only is Annabelle a Paralympic gold medallist, but she’s an international public speaker, a sports reporter, has a law degree and is a mother. Feeling like an underachiever yet?

But there’s really no way you could feel even an ounce of envy towards Annabelle. Above all, she’s a humble, grounded and positive person. Her story and work ethic is beyond inspiring – perfect for this Sunday’s International Women’s Day.

We caught up with Annabelle to learn more about her fascinating life and career and how she somehow manages to fit it all in.

With so many strings to your bow, it's hard to know where to start! Talk to us about winning gold in the Paralympics. How did that feel?

Annabelle Williams

It was the most unbelievable experience! Winning a gold medal as a member of the relay team really taught me the richness of happiness when it’s shared. It was also made more special by the fact that I had so many family members and friends in the stands that night who could share in the celebrations.  

Going into that race, we were ranked fifth, so we had an incredibly outside chance of a minor medal and almost no chance of a gold medal! So the elation and emotion were especially heightened because it wasn’t meant to happen and the race itself was just so close!

It’s hard to compete with the high of winning a gold medal and I feel very honoured to be able to look back on that time and remember how it felt and the support of the people who helped me get there.

At what age did you decide you wanted to take part in the Games and how did you reach that goal?

I was actually a runner before I was a swimmer. I was on track to compete at the Athens 2004 Paralympic games for the 400m, but I developed stress fractures in both my shins which forced me to stop competing in athletics. I have always swum quite a lot and it was a teacher at school who encouraged me to take swimming a little more seriously while I recovered from my injuries.

Over time I began to love racing in swimming competitions and the rest, as they say, is history. I made my first Australian team in 2005 when I was in year 11 and the following year was the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth games, so qualifying for that team became a real goal of mine and fortunately something that came to fruition. 

None of it would’ve been possible without the incredible support from my teachers, my parents and my friends during what was a very, very busy period. I also had to learn how to compartmentalise my life because it was important to me not only to do well in swimming but also to do well in school because I wanted to study law at university. It was a busy, challenging time, but pretty amazing when it all came together!

What was your experience growing up with a difference?

Annabelle Williams

Growing up with a difference certainly had its challenges, but overwhelmingly I feel lucky to have grown up without my left arm. I have been provided so many opportunities to meet incredible people and travel to amazing places and I also think it taught me a great number of skills like resilience and problem solving and determination and grit. 

When I look back at my childhood, it was the happiest one I could have imagined. My parents always encouraged me and supported me to be involved in lots of extracurricular activities and I had a great group of friends and a very supportive extended family, so my difference was really just a pretty small part of me and certainly didn’t seem to dictate who I was.

You have used your experiences to inspire others by becoming an international public speaker. Talk to us about this and what it means to you.

Annabelle Williams

I absolutely love speaking to audiences all over the world! For the last decade I have worked as a lawyer and done motivational speaking on the side but after an executive program at Stanford University last year, a number of opportunities presented themselves to take speaking more seriously and I’m so glad that I embraced them. 

In my talks, I speak about having developed resilience and determination and grit and how I believe that those qualities developed thanks to the courage and kindness of other people. I use storytelling and anecdotes about my childhood and my time as a member of the Australian Paralympic Team and I hope that my messages can help people realise that their only limitations are in their mind and everyone has the capacity to make meaningful change.  

It’s a privilege to be able to talk to audiences large and small and to speak and also to learn about their stories and their experiences.

As if being a gold medallist and international speaker wasn't enough, you also have a law degree. Was this always another passion of yours outside of sport?

Annabelle Williams

I actually initially wanted to do law because I thought I wanted to be a diplomat and most diplomats seemed to have law degrees! I had the opportunity to work in Paris for the Australian trade commission in 2009 and while it was an incredible opportunity, I realised the law was probably more suited to my skill set. 

I worked in the M&A department at Allens Linklaters in Sydney and then for five years as the legal counsel for the Australian Olympic Committee. I really like the fact that in law you are solving problems and you have to think very laterally. I now hold a few board and advisory roles in Australia and internationally and I find that my legal background helps me in those positions.

Just when we thought there wouldn't be enough hours left in the day, we hear that you're also a sports reporter and are on a number of boards and committees. Tell us about this.

Annabelle Williams

Haha! Life is very busy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do sports reporting/commentating for Network Seven and have done a bit for the ABC as well. This year I will be commentating the Paralympics in August/September and the Olympic and Paralympic swim trials in June. I really like talking, so it doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like a hobby! 

In terms of the board and committee roles, I am the Vice President of Paralympics Australia, a board member of ChildFund, the Chair of the Paralympics Australia Athletes’ Commission, the Vice Chair of the Australian Swimmers' Association and a member of the IAAF Disciplinary Tribunal. I really enjoy having a mix of roles.

Career aside, you are also a proud mother of a gorgeous little girl called Josie. How has the experience of motherhood been for you so far and how has it changed you?

Annabelle Williams

Josie is the best thing in the whole wide world! She’s 19 months old now and has just been an absolute joy. Given the flexibility of all my roles, I actually have a lot of time to spend with Josie during the week, which is just fabulous. Motherhood has definitely changed me. Because I’ve always been so busy, I rarely stopped to take the time to appreciate the little things. And Josie has definitely made me see the beauty in the smallest things.

Even yesterday we sat on a step for 15 minutes and watched an ant go about its daily business. I never would have done that before! It was actually very relaxing. But she has also profoundly changed me as a person. Every decision I make is for her and I want her to see that her mother is someone with a strong career, a strong sense of self, someone with a great group of friends, and a strong support network because I hope that that is what she grows up to have.

There will be many people reading this wondering how you manage to 'do it all'. What is your secret?

Annabelle Williams

I have a lot of support. No one can do it alone, especially when you have children. My mum and dad help out a huge amount and my husband is also very involved and hands-on. He is a barrister and so his work is also busy, but we support each other to find the right balance.

In terms of the work and the roles and the speaking, if you want something badly enough, there’s enough time to make it happen. I realised that back in year 12 when I had the HSC exams, the Commonwealth Games and a great deal of involvement with my high school because of the leadership position I held at the time. I remember thinking that life would never get busier, but it seems like every year has but gotten busier than the last!  

After a while, it becomes the new norm. It is very important to find downtime for yourself. That is something I’ve really had to learn. The ability to switch off and take time out and tap into my own needs. It is still a work in progress, but I’m getting there! I love running and hanging out with friends (and the odd massage!), so I make sure I build those things into my routine.

Seeing as it's International Women's Day this Sunday, talk to us about what womanhood means to you in 2020.

International Women's Day

I am fortunate to have had wonderful female role models in my life. My grandma, Josephine (after whom my daughter is named), was widowed in the 1950s at the age of 26 with two little children (my uncle and my mum – also named Josephine). She had gone to Teachers College, but in those days there was legislation in place which meant that once a woman was married, she could no longer work. 

When my grandfather passed away suddenly in a car accident, my grandma had to beg for a job and was often made to feel like she had taken a position that should have gone to a man. My grandma worked hard all her life and gave my mum and my uncle a wonderful education and opportunities to see the world and experience different cultures. 

Of course (and thank god!), an enormous amount has changed since then, however, we still have a long way to go. No country in the world has achieved gender equality. I am proud to live in an era where there are so many people challenging the power imbalance and the system that has disregarded women’s rights for decades.

What advice would you give to a young girl who wants to follow in your footsteps and achieve big dreams?

Annabelle Williams

Go for it! Don’t let anyone hold you back. There will be people in your path who make things challenging either because they don’t want to see you get ahead or they can’t fathom how you can do all the things you want to do. You need to do what feels right for you. Trust your gut. One day you’ll look back and you’ll see what incredible progress you’ve made – not only for yourself but for other women who feel like their dreams are possible because you achieved yours. 

Have role models and learn about how they managed to fulfil their dreams. Read books about them. Listen to podcasts by them. If you can, ask them directly. I have always had very strong female role models. I looked up to my grandma, I look up to my mum, I admire Quentin Bryce and Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. So many women have done extraordinary things and they hope more than anything that the next generation of girls will push the boundaries even further!

There has been huge progress for gender equality in the wake of the 'Me Too' movement. That said, we're sure you'd agree there's a long way to go. What are your hopes for the world your daughter will grow up into when it comes to gender equality?

When I look at Josie, I want to instil in her the language of equality, absolutely, but more than that, the language of power. I hope she is inspired and motivated by her grandmother and great-grandmother – both wonderful role models – and I hope she grows up believing her rights are truly equal to her male counterparts and I hope she lives in a society that agrees, wholeheartedly!

We're also living in a time of great anxiety for the environment and the impact we're all having on the planet. In what ways do you try to live a more eco-friendly and sustainable life?

I’ve become very conscious of the clothes I purchase. For speeches and formal events, I now rent dresses and for day-to-day clothes, I look to buy products that are eco-friendly and sustainable. The ethos of the brands is very important. We also try to offset our personal greenhouse gas emissions by donating to projects that sequester or avoid carbon emissions.

I also think that political activism is very important – pressuring our State and Federal MPs to demand greater action to mitigate climate change. 

We hear you're a big fan of Boody. What is it about our everyday essentials you love?

Boody products are so incredibly comfortable! Nothing feels better than having a warm bath and dressing in head-to-toe Boody! I also love the soft colours and adore the baby range. It’s also very important to me that the products are eco-friendly. 

Any top picks from our ranges?

Boody Crew Neck T-Shirt

I love all Boody products, but if I had to pick a favourite it would be the Crew Neck T-Shirt. So incredibly soft and comfy!

Finally, what are your plans for the near future? Anything exciting on the horizon you'd like to share?

Annabelle Williams

The future looks very exciting! It’s already been a busy start to the year (I recently returned from speaking at a Global Sales Kick-Off in Las Vegas) and I have a busy few months ahead. I also did a TED talk last week and I’m speaking at Aramco in Saudi Arabia early this month.

I have quite a few talks in the USA in April and then some commentating after that. I’ve partnered with a women's health platform called Flo and will be doing some more work with them this year. I also have a couple of exciting partnerships that I’ll be able to announce soon!

Follow Annabelle on Instagram and check out her website, annabellewilliams.com.au.

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