This month, Sports Illustrated made waves on the Internet with their annual announcement about one of the most coveted honors in sports: Sportsperson of the Year. Tennis superstar Serena Williams took the title, and, while most people applauded the decision, others were not happy about Williams taking the title over American Pharaoh – prompting a ridiculous debate about whether or not a horse should be eligible.
But, in true Serena fashion, she took the controversy in stride when she gave her acceptance speech earlier this week. In her speech, Williams made casual jokes about the 30+ year gap between women recipients of the award, and the latest drama about her win. She encouraged young athletes to continue to work hard, believe in their dreams, and to be their own biggest fan. She also spoke frankly about her struggle to gain respect and acceptance in her sport as a black woman, and how she shattered the status quo to become a winner.
“I’ve had people put me down because I didn’t look like them — I look stronger,” she said. “I’ve had people look past me because of the color of my skin. I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman. I’ve had critics say I would never win another Grand Slam when I was only at number seven and now here I stand today, with 21 Grand Slam titles. And I’m still going.”
Serena gave the audience a brief synopsis of her tennis career, starting with her days spent playing tennis on the “beaten-courts” of Compton, California to dominating in professional tennis years after most players hit their decline. And, with an inspirational life like hers, it’s no surprise that the highlight of her speech would also include influential words written by her favorite poet, Maya Angelou.
At the end of her speech, Williams fired back at all of her critics in the classiest way with a beautiful recitation of “Still I Rise.” The poem has gotten quite a bit of spotlight this year — Nicki Minaj recited it during A&E’s Shining A Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America in November — and it’s easy to see why. Now more than ever, the poem’s message feels especially essential. It is an ode to the resilience of black women in a world that holds them to higher standards; polices their bodies and behavior; and consistently denies them of their accomplishments and excellence.
The words of Maya Angelou seemed to be a reflection of Williams’ own arduous journey in the public eye as she’s faced people trying to tear her down. Her voice was packed with emotion as she shared the following snippet:
Now, that is a powerful way to silence the haters. Check out Serena’s speech below in its entirety.
(Image via video.)