At The Grace Tales, we're acutely aware that as soon as she takes on the role of 'mother,' every woman becomes a 'slashie.' No longer are they merely a lawyer, an author, a stylist, an athlete, an entrepreneur ... They become a woman who does it all.
And while we’ve seen our fair share of impressive slashies, there has perhaps never been one as remarkable as Annabelle Williams. Perhaps it’s best you take a breath and a long sip of tea before considering just a little of Annabelle’s resume …
She is a Paralympic Gold Medallist (a swimmer), international keynote speaker, lawyer (until recently, the Legal Counsel for the Australian Olympic Committee, no less), TV reporter and sports commentator and passionate diversity advocate. She was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2013, is the Vice-President of the Board of Paralympics Australia, Chair of the Paralympics Australia Athletes’ Commission, and member of the IAAF Disciplinary Tribunal. She has held advisory roles with the Australian Swimmers’ Association and the Australian Sports Foundation. She has broken numerous world records, worked in Paris for the Australian Trade Commission (where she consolidated her French language skills) and in Washington D.C. for a US sports agency and – wait for it – was a stunt double in Mad Max 4: Fury Road.
She’s just returned from Silicon Valley where she completed an executive MBA at Stanford, one of the USA’s most prestigious universities, with her baby girl, Josie, in tow. As if we’d expect anything less, Annabelle delivered the valedictory address to her class at Stanford and followed up her speech globe-trotting – in the last few weeks alone she has been to Spain, France, Belarus and back to the US – delivering motivational speeches to top executives and organisations.
Her latest partnership is with Flo Health, a women’s health platform with more than 100 million users, where she is about to release a course about empowerment – aimed at empowering women as they navigate bumps along the road. Having very recently resigned from her legal role, she used her spare time (ha) to set up her own company, consulting and speaking all over the world.
Now let me catch my breath while I consider how many achievements I’ve missed.
If you thought this was enough to feel a slight twinge of resentment toward the perpetually over-achieving Annabelle, her infectious persona will quickly squash those thoughts. She is as kind as she is successful, as self-deprecating as she is accomplished, and as lovely as they come.
Let us introduce you to the incomparable Annabelle Williams …
Follow Annabelle at @anniejwilliams and www.annabellewilliams.com.au.
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
I was born in Sydney on 21 July 1988 at King George V Hospital in Camperdown. Rumour has it that I was the biggest baby ever to be born at the hospital – but I think (and hope!) that’s a story which has been embellished over the years! Nevertheless, I was large! Plus, I was missing my left hand, so I would have been even heavier! Haha. We moved to Jakarta, Indonesia when I was 7 for my Dad’s work and lived there for 3 years. I attended the British International School, which is where I started to swim competitively. When we returned to Sydney, a number of my friends were swimming competitively in squads so I went along with them a couple of times a week. To be honest, I hated swimming training. I thought it was so antisocial and much preferred athletics where I could chat to my friends during training, rather than having my head buried in the water.
Growing up, were you acutely aware of your difference? If so, how did you navigate the difficult childhood and teenage years?
When I was very young, I was blissfully naïve that I was different at all! Even when people asked me questions, I always quite proudly said ‘This is my born arm!’ (Which is what I used to call it, because I didn’t have the language to explain that I had a congenital limb deficiency and my parents had always told me I was ‘born’ that way. Hence, ‘born arm’.)
I always felt very supported and encouraged during my primary school years. I’m sure kids would sometimes have said nasty things, but I don’t recall that happening very often. I remember one boy telling me my arm was ‘different’ and even though it was probably intended to hurt my feelings, I remember thinking ‘well, that’s factually accurate’ and going back to play with my group of girlfriends. Even though I was never bullied, I think I always (and sometimes still do) felt the need to prove to people that having one arm wasn’t a limitation for me. My kindergarten teacher asked me one day that if I ever needed help tying my shoelaces, to just ask. Nobody else in the class was spoken to and I saw it as a challenge. I HAD to be able to tie my shoelaces by next week’s sports lesson! I spent every waking minute practising tying shoelaces – trying to figure out a way to do it with one hand. Before anyone could leave our house in the morning, I had to successfully tie their laces! The next week I asked my teacher if I could tie everyone’s shoelaces in the class. How annoying for that poor teacher! But I was pretty determined.
During my teenage years, I spent so much time playing sport that my appearance wasn’t really of much concern to me. I ran competitively for a number of years and really hoped to make the 2004 Paralympic Games for the 400m. I developed stress fractures in both my shins, which derailed my plans, but athletics had introduced me to the world of Paralympic sport and other people who had the same differences as me. I really looked up to an amazing runner called Amy Winters who won multiple Paralympic gold medals and was missing her right hand. We trained together and she was always so lovely to me and gave me a lot of confidence. I was also fortunate to grow up with the best parents (I know a lot of people say that, but mine really are THE BEST!). They encouraged me to give everything a go and were always there to chat things through if something was a challenge.
What was your experience like competing (and winning gold, no less!) in the Paralympics?
Nothing compares to that feeling. We weren’t expected to win gold in that race and the surprise, combined with the realisation that it was the culmination of 15 years of hard work, sacrifice and sleep deprivation (which actually prepared me very well for motherhood!), made the experience completely overwhelming. I had always hoped that if I won a gold medal, I would react like the people who win Academy Awards – very excited, but also poised and graceful. I was none of those things – I was OUT OF MY SKIN excited and looked like a banshee wailer or a deranged animal! It was just the best. Even reflecting on that moment now gives me goosebumps. We also only won by 0.03seconds and there was a fingernail between first and fourth place. It has to be one of the most nail-biting finishes in sport. You can see it here.
As well as being a gold medallist, you also have a law degree - not something that many elite athletes can claim! What motivated you to find a career outside of sport?
My parents always encouraged me to swim and pursue every opportunity that comes along, however they wisely also told me that my sporting career had a shelf life and probably wouldn’t continue past the age of 30 and so it was important that I had a fulfilling and rewarding post sport career. I made my first Australian team, the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, when I was in year 12. I was also school vice-captain that year and had decided I wanted to study law and international relations at university with a view of hopefully one day becoming a diplomat. It was an incredibly busy year for me and I missed 10 weeks of school because of the Commonwealth Games, so I had to really learn the art of compartmentalising! There were periods when I was stressed by the fact that I was swimming and not studying and other times when I was worried that I should be swimming not studying and the worry of it all was very totally counterproductive, so I tried to simplify things by just focusing entirely on whatever task I was doing at that point in time so as to not become too overwhelmed. I also had a lot of support from my parents and teachers at school who helped me catch up on the work I had missed while I was at the Games. When I was studying law up at Bond University in Queensland, I undertook a summer clerkship at Allen’s Linklaters in Sydney. They offered me a graduate position and that was my first job in law.
Although it made life very busy, I am so grateful that my parents encouraged me to study throughout my sporting career. Every athlete finds the transition to the ‘real world’ a challenge, but it’s made so much easier if you can channel your energy in a new direction. Athletes thrive on routine and structure and it can be very challenging if you lose those things without a new, clear direction!
ust to make us all feel completely lazy, you’re also a sports reporter, and are on a number of boards and committees. Have you always worked best when juggling a number of balls in the air?
I remember thinking that 2006 was going to be the busiest year of my life and once I got through that I could relax and take things easy! In hindsight I think every year since 2006 has been busier than the last! I do enjoy having multiple things on the go. i’m the vice president of the board of Paralympics Australia, the chair of the Paralympics Australia athletes commission, a member of the IAAF disciplinary tribunal and a TV reporter and sports . I’ve also recently resigned from my legal job and am pursuing a number of international opportunities which stemmed from the Stanford executive MBA! I’m doing a lot of motivational speaking and I’ve recently been to Spain, France, Belarus and back to the US, speaking to companies about overcoming adversity, resilience, courage , grit and fearlessness. I’m passionate about diversity and inclusion and am honoured to be able to travel the world speaking to people about becoming empowered! It’s a very busy schedule and I’m lucky to have an enormous amount of support from my parents and my wonderful husband, who also has a very busy career as a barrister. I really think those compartmentalising skills have helped me a lot. Trying to be present in everything I do. I write very detailed to do lists and schedule my time to make sure I have a balance. Finding a balance is a real challenge, but my priority is Josie and my family and then I make sure that the rest of the work I do aligns with my values.
How do you approach your career? Do you set targets? Do you manifest opportunities? What’s your approach?
Given the recent change to my career, I have spent a lot of time setting targets and goals! My goal at the moment is to continue expanding my speaking and consulting business and partnering with companies whose values align with my own. I am goal oriented and spend a lot of time thinking about where I want my career to go and where I can hopefully have an impact. I try to make the most of opportunities I’m afforded and that has led me to very interesting roles. My focus has naturally shifted in the last 12 months and while my career ambitions still remain, flexibility and making sure I’m focusing on roles I’m really passionate about is crucial so that I still have lots of time to enjoy with Josie. I have a number of mentors who help me re-calibrate and re-focus and are great sounding boards.
Now the million dollar question - how do you do it all? (And do you have any hacks or tips for other mothers trying to juggle it all?)
We have a lot of help! Especially from my incredible Mum! I definitely couldn’t do it alone. I am fortunate to have family in Sydney and my parents provide my husband and I with incredible support which means we can pursue our careers simultaneously. However, it isn’t easy. My husband is a barrister and has long hours, but we both put family first. Alistair will usually come home in time for dinner and a bath and then head back into the office once Josie is asleep. My Mum looks after Josie two days a week, so I try and schedule all my meetings on those two days and then I do the rest of my work during Josie’s naps and once she’s gone to bed. When I read that, it sounds horribly busy, and it is, but we also manage to find a lot of time to just enjoy time together. On the weekends we take Josie to swimming lessons and usually spend hours in the Botanical Gardens, which is near our apartment. The juggle however, is real. Even though I took 12 months of maternity leave, I still had board roles and other commitments, and I just had to make it work. A huge shout out to the amazing CEO of Paralympics Australia, Lynne Anderson who let me breastfeed in her office during board meetings and to my Mum who did countless laps of the office between feeds! Attitudes towards working Mums are changing and in my experience if you communicate to people about what you need and what your boundaries are, people are more than willing to help! My advice is find a support network, and hold them close (and then hang on for the ride)! I’ve already seen how much Josie has changed in 15 months – the newborn phase was so short! So even when it’s all a bit chaotic, I try to remind myself that in no time she’ll be all grown up, so I soak in every moment!
What was your expectation of motherhood before becoming a mother?
I actually had low expectations! I thought babies never, ever slept and pooped and vomited constantly! Thankfully, that hasn’t been our experience at all, so I was very pleasantly surprised! In all honesty though, the second I saw a Josie I completely fell in love. She is a gorgeous little girl with a very sweet temperament and makes me laugh every day. I don’t think women talk enough about the challenges following the birth. I was lucky to have a very good labour, but I had no understanding of how hard breastfeeding would be! I also didn’t realise that babies needed to be fed every two hours, 24 hours a day! We were lucky that Josie was a good sleeper. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for mothers and fathers who have to go back to work while their child is still waking up multiple times a night. Those guys are heroes!
What was your experience of pregnancy like?
There was no pregnancy glow! None whatsoever. I had a bad morning sickness which made the first few months challenging. I remember flying to the sunshine coast for New Year’s Eve with some friends, I was going to tell them I was pregnant, however the night before I threw up so many times that I burst every capillary in my face and neck so when I arrived with my girlfriends it was less happy tears and hugs and more cold face washes and bath salts!
What about the birth of your daughter?
I had a really good labour. Almost entirely because I had an epidural. I had a natural birth and fortunately no complications. I know everyone’s story is so different and a lot of people have a terrible time in labour. I had only heard horror stories and that frightened me for a long time. It wasn’t until a swimming friend of mine told me that labour was like an anaerobic threshold swimming training session – very, very intense when you’re on and then you get a short break before the intensity starts again. Once I heard that, I saw labour as a challenge to be conquered! It made me feel empowered.
Talk us through your experience of motherhood so far. What have been the biggest highlights? And the greatest challenges?
I absolutely love being a Mum! It is the greatest privilege to watch Josie grow. I’m lucky to have been able to take a full year off work and adore just doing the little things with Josie – taking her to the park pushing her on the swings and reading her stories. It sounds cliché, but they grow so quickly and watching her learn new skills is beautiful. Al, Josie and I spent a month together in New York earlier this year which was just wonderful. It was a little bubble of time – Al was between jobs and I was on maternity leave, so there were no distractions. Josie loved it too – especially all the shiny sculptures at MOMA – I think that was her highlight! I found breastfeeding the biggest challenge. I had a large oversupply of milk, which sounds like a good thing, but was actually quite challenging. I had mastitis a number of times and also, having one hand, it took some time to figure out how to hold Josie in a way that she was comfortable!
You’ve taken Josie to board meetings to breastfeed - how has this been received? Why is it important to you to do so?
I have! Josie has come to so many meetings already! I’m on the Board of Paralympics Australia and the Board and CEO are so understanding. During the meeting, my AMAZING Mum comes and takes Josie for a walk and then I pop out to feed her in the CEO’s office. Josie has joined a number of meetings at the end during ‘general business’ and always has plenty to say! I am also the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission and a couple of times I think Josie thought she was the Chair! I think this type of thing is becoming more accepted, and so it should. Mothers have a huge amount to balance and a massive amount of value to add. If we really want a diverse workplace, we need to adopt practices that reflect it.
What legacy are you hoping to create for your daughter?
I want to expose Josie to a broad range of society so that she grows up knowing that there are people from diverse backgrounds and she treats them all equally. I think she realises that my left arm is a little different and whenever I hold my right hand out to hold hers, she pushes it away and wants to hold my left arm. It’s very sweet!
What type of mother do you aspire to be? And what lessons do you hope to impart on Josie?
If I can be the kind of mother to Josie that my Mum is to me, I will be thrilled! Above everything I want to teach Josie the importance of kindness and to accept people as they are. I am proud of the fact that she will grow up with a mother who has a disability so that she will see the diversity that exists in our community. I hope that she will be the kind of person who stands up for what she knows is right and stand alongside people who really need her to.
How do you approach sport and fitness now? Is it still a bit part of your life?
Living a healthy lifestyle is super important to me. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the top nutritionists in the country and post-swimming, healthy eating has been a priority. After years of having swimming coaches telling you what to do – how many laps, how quickly, and having to make sure I was always on time and in a very strict routine, I now enjoy the flexibility I can have with exercise. When I retired from swimming I told myself that I would still swim twice a week go to the gym on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning and run once on the weekend. After a few months of that routine and not really enjoying it at all, I realised the only person who is putting pressure on me to stick with it was myself. Now I try and think of what activity I feel like doing and try and find a space to do that. Usually, it’s a run but sometimes that’s going for a swim, or taking a spin class or yoga class and sometimes it’s just sitting on my balcony stretching or doing some weights.
Do you indulge in self-care? If so, what does this look like for you?
Exercise. It is my happy place. I ran a marathon in 2017 and absolutely loved training for it. I find running very calming and I can just zone out. I do less of it now with Josie, but whenever I can get out for a jog – even just a short one, I come back feeling better. These days an early night and a face mask is an indulgence, but I also love the occasional sneaky massages.
How do you unwind and relax?
I’m (slowly) learning how to meditate. I also find exercise is a good way to unwind and a massage very relaxing.
Who and what inspire you?
My grandma, Josephine Cripps (my daughter was named after her and my Mum, whose name is also Josephine), whose husband was killed in a car crash when she was 25. She was left, a single mother of two children (my Mum and Uncle) in the 1950s. She had gone to teachers college and in those days women employed in the public service were required to give up their jobs once they married (insanity – can you believe that the law only changed in 1966)! When my grandfather was killed she basically had to beg for her job as a home economics teacher and she raised two children all on her own, with very little support in Sydney (her parents and in laws lived in Wollongong and Blackheath respectively). She provided Mum and Uncle Steve with a fabulous education and all the opportunities with it. She very much lived by the mantra that you just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. She never complained and didn’t have time for wallowing. She was brilliant, and funny, and had thousand of friends who just adored her. She was my role model growing up and since having my little Josie, I realise more than ever how challenging things must have been for her. I’m looking forward to letting little Josie know all about her namesake!
What books are currently on your bedside table?
After a month in New York, I’m reading a lot of Obama related books …
- ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama
- ‘Yes We Can’ by 10 Obama Staffers
- ‘Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward’ by Valerie Jarrett
- ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ by Alyssa Mastromonaco
- And after Stanford, I’m readying a lot of business related books: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight and Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck are the latest!
What’s on your current list of loves?
- New York!
- Mum (or ‘Mom’) jeans!
- Using nappy balm as hand moisturiser in the winter – seriously – try it! I use the MooGoo one.
- Kurt Fearnley’s ‘Tiny Island’
- ‘The Dropout’ –The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos
- Biossance Squalane+ Vitamin C, Rose Oil
- Chantecaille mascara – it smells like roses, Delicious!
- Shuuemura hair treatment – breastfeeding has made my hair so dry and straw-like, so I’m using this hair treatment every few days at the moment!
- Neostrata foaming glycolic wash – I’ve used this for years (but not while pregnant) and love it!