Jillian Williams has seen other athletes win gold medals through hours of grueling training and effort.
It takes the same intensity that propelled Williams through the days of surgery and illness when she was diagnosed with cancer more than four years ago. Her passion for volleyball propelled the young athlete through two rounds of therapy and several surgeries – one of which had to remove part of her leg.
Now Williams is the newest member of the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team – which is defending the gold medal won in 2016 – at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo that kicked off Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a highlight like no other,” Williams, 24, said before heading to Tokyo, 7,670 miles from her home in Houston. “There are so many things we have had to overcome. It’s going to be so much fun.”
Williams has spent endless hours improving her volleyball skills since she discovered the sport in the third grade.
In high school, her parents, Trey and Janna Williams, drove her two hours from Odem (at Corpus Christi) to play in a club league in San Antonio three times a week.
Williams’ progress continued at Texas Lutheran College until she developed severe recurring pain in her left thigh in 2016.
Soon the freshman would be diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone and soft tissue cancer common in adolescents and children.
After her diagnosis, Williams turned to Dr. Aaron Sugalski, a pediatric oncologist at the Mays Cancer Center, home of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson, and Valerae O. Lewis, an orthopedic oncologist at the University of Texas at Houston MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Williams bonded with her medical team, which helped her understand that they would do everything they could to ensure she had the best life possible.
“I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done and continue to do in my life,” Williams said. “They know about my life simply because they invest so much in it to let them know fully that we can trust them. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Lewis and her team gave Williams hope when her left knee and the middle part of the leg were removed to reduce the chance of the cancer returning. But Lewis, an orthopedic oncologist at Anderson for 20 years, said Williams’ positivity was a huge factor in her success.
“It’s her resilience and attitude that have kept her moving forward,” she said. “Really, the combination of patient and family made the procedure and recovery very easy. As a whole we made a great team.”
Sugalski said Williams was a model patient, “always going along with what they asked for, and it shows.”
“She’s a great person,” Sugalski said. “She was gung-ho with family support. She never missed an appointment and faced challenges. Her ultimate goal was to play volleyball again.”
Williams, a self-proclaimed planner, had to learn that she wasn’t in control of everything in her life.
“God has a plan,” Williams said. “My job is to show up every day and be grateful for the life I’ve been given.”
In January 2017, she rang the ceremonial bell announcing the completion of her chemotherapy and follow-up appointments. Then she began her return to court. This time the field was smaller, the net lower and she was in a faster game.
While undergoing treatment, Williams read a Sports Illustrated story about Lora Webster of the United States sitting volleyball team who had a similar procedure to have part of her leg removed. So Williams messaged Webster, who played in the Rio Paralympics in 2016, for team contact details.
Three months after her treatments, Williams was invited to train with the national sitting volleyball team in Edmond, Oklahoma. In May 2017, she started the USA Volleyball A2 program, which is used in the national team. She was three months into the program when a coach suggested she move to Oklahoma to develop her skills.
“If it weren’t for that, I probably wouldn’t be the athlete I am today,” Williams said. “I was completely immersed in it.”
There were many more changes in her life. Williams completed her bachelor’s degree in marketing with an emphasis in professional sales at the University of Central Oklahoma at Edmond. She also married Kyle Coffee, a firefighter with the Harris County Hazardous Materials Response Team.
Although Williams’ family will not be at the games, she will have memories of it. She carries her teddy bear, Pinky, which she has had during treatment. The stuffed animal has been with her every day since second grade, except once during training in Oklahoma when she left it at her parents’ home. She wasn’t long without the bear – they spent the night with him.
Williams is looking forward to taking the field and playing at center. It’s the position she’s held her entire career – always ready to jump in when needed.
“I want my teammates and coaches to know that they can trust me anywhere,” Williams said, “to do my best.”