Fara Williams has played through numerous aches, pulls and strains in her 20-year career, but what seemed like relatively routine injury in March 2020 spiralled into an intensely challenging 12-month journey.
England’s most-capped player, Williams, recently revealed she was diagnosed with a kidney condition called nephrotic syndrome last year and the subsequent treatment caused “excessive” weight gain which affected her performance, self-confidence and relationships off the pitch.
Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports News, Williams details the rollercoaster of emotions the last year had taken her on and the demons she fought along the way while suffering without speaking out.
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March 2020, I had an operation to reattach the muscle & tendons of my thigh to the bone. In my final stage of rehab, I noticed swelling in my body. I was admitted to A & E and underwent a kidney biopsy….
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It was in 2020 pre-lockdown, when she first noticed complications during her rehabilitation from a thigh operation.
“I had an operation in early March to re-attach the quad tendon to the hip bone and then we went into lockdown so I was doing my rehab from home. It was during that time that I realised that parts of my body were swelling, I didn’t really know what it was, [I thought] it may be hayfever or allergies, I had really bad circulation in my hands.
“I was coming towards the end of my rehab, when I noticed swelling in my calf. I thought I had pulled a muscle. I was with my physio and they couldn’t see anything that was wrong.
“I’m somebody that is quite tough, I have a high pain threshold. I don’t really like going to the doctors, I don’t really like taking paracetamols.
“It wasn’t until my stomach started to swell that I got worried. I took my self to A&E and there I was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome – a kidney condition.
“When the consultant diagnosed me he wasn’t completely sure as to why the condition had come, he assumed it was from some sort of infection that my body was trying to fight. The reason as to why or how the condition was brought on is unknown.”
‘I wasn’t prepared for the side effects’
Williams was given anti-doping clearance to resume playing for Reading while on high doses of steroids for her condition, but she says was not prepared for side effects which came with her medication.
“[After the condition was confirmed] they treated it with high doses of steroids and tablets to stop the water my body was leaking.
“At the time I felt very ill, I was struggling, I was struggling to lay flat at night and sleep. I just wanted to feel better so I took the medication and did not realise how my body image would change on steroids and all the side effects that come with it – mentally it really affected me, not being in control of body and how it was changing.
“Steroids make your body retain water but I was seeing it in the wrong areas, the consultant was not sure why that was.
“I was getting heavy fluid around the legs and knees. If you can imagine playing nearly 9kg over your normal playing weight.
“I tried to fight through, but on reflection I should have left it to my fitter team-mates. The condition took me a long time to accept. I had to realise illness is totally different to injury.
“Not only was I failing myself, I was failing my team in still trying to perform.”
‘I could not control my body’
Williams says the most difficult part of her ordeal was the “demon” of insecurity she felt whenever she tried to step onto the pitch and was consumed with worry over what she thought other people were thinking about her.
“That was the biggest thing. I am somebody that has always been seen as a ‘tough cookie’. It’s served me really well throughout my career but this one really took it out of me, not being able to control by body is something I really struggled with.
“The insecurities I carried, the weight I was carrying, I was growing hair, I had what is called a ‘moon face’ when your cheeks are really swollen. Also knowing that people know my age and think I coming to the end of my career.”
The 37-year-old also says she took a break from social media to avoid reading any hurtful comments about her appearance or performance.
“I purposely wasn’t reading any feedback. I’m not sure if there was anything that was said. It was a demon I was fighting, I knew that every time I was on the pitch I was worried about what opposition thought about me.
“I would bite the inside of my cheeks, pull my shirt so it wasn’t as tight. There were a lot of negatives and I was thinking about all of these things while trying to play. I didn’t read anything so if people did say anything I didn’t see it on Twitter on Instagram.”
‘I’ve been an absolute nightmare’
Now in remission and on the road to a return for Reading in the WSL, Williams accepts that she should have heeded the “ruthless” advice from her loved ones, who had to deal with her frequent mood swings brought on by her medication.
“You know your mum is always right and your partner knows best. They were the only ones who were ruthless in telling me how I was nowhere near my usual standards, physically I was doing myself an injustice.
“I have been an absolute nightmare, one of the side effects to the medication is mood swings.
“Without realising when I was in football I was wearing that ‘mask’ and I took the frustration and mood swings home to my mum, partner and agent.”
‘My legs feel like my own again’
Almost a year on from the beginning of her ordeal, Williams is back training with her Reading team-mates and even has a potential one-year contract extension on the table.
“I’ve done some sessions alone for the last few weeks to get myself back running and out there. I joined the team yesterday and I took a whack right in the face! So just as it starts to seem like I look a bit better I get a bit of swelling on those nose and a black eye!
“I’m enjoying coming into training. I wasn’t enjoying it before, I was doing it because it was my job and didn’t want to let down people around me. Now I have got the buzz back and want to be here and around the team again.
“Finally for the first time, I feel like I am getting closer to my normal self. In my head I ask myself ‘how did I ever try to play through this?’ My legs feel like my own again. Before even small movements I was struggling with. I’ve got the smile back which is most important.
“I want to make sure [signing a contract] is the right decision, I don’t want to sign it because I can and it is there. I don’t want to do it because it would be comfortable for me.
“I want to do it because I’ve enjoyed the rest of the season and I want another year. I don’t want to give poor performances for the team, I want to be remembered for serving my team and the game well.”
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