It takes a lot to shake one of the world’s most prolific athletes of all time.
Tennis star and new mom Serena Williams has opened up to PEOPLE about the harrowing birth of daughter Alexis Olympia, now 7 months, and how she’s bounced back from the postpartum complications that left her bedridden.
“Felt like yesterday the doctor walked in, she looked at me and she said, ‘Alright, we’re gonna have to give you a c-section,’ ” recalls Williams, 36, of her doctor’s words in the midst of her birthing process, after learning the baby’s heart rate was dropping.
Initially, “I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’ And I didn’t flinch. There was a weird sense in me [that] knew that I was going to have to have a c-section, so I wasn’t too surprised even though I didn’t want it.”
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But deep down, says Williams, “I was still devastated. I think every woman, a part of them, wants to have birth naturally and [to] feel that … when you get a c-section it’s different.”
Another thing she feared: “I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have this scar,” says Williams, a new spokesperson for Embrace Scar Therapy treatments.
But those emotions were fleeting as she focused on the health of her daughter. “Once she was okay, everything for me was okay,” she says, before adding, “Even though everything wasn’t okay.”
Shortly after welcoming baby Alexis, Williams, who’s suffered from blood issues in the past, had trouble breathing. Following a heavy coughing spell her c-section wound reopened and after imploring a nurse for help, doctors soon discovered multiple blood clots including one in her lungs. She was taken back into surgery and put on blood thinners.
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Though she feels lucky to be alive, what followed was six weeks in bed recovering, all while trying to enjoy life as a new mom.
“My whole life I’ve been physically pushing my body to the limits,” says Williams. “And this is the one time where I couldn’t control anything. I couldn’t push my body. My body pushed to its maximum. That was so hard.”
Still says Williams of her baby, “I remember the first day she came and she slept with me, it was just the most amazing feeling ever.”
Now back in fighting shape, Williams, who’s returned to the court and has an HBO documentary series Being Serena premiering May 2, credits her husband, tech executive Alexis Ohanian, Sr., her sister Venus and friends for being her support system.
“It takes a village to raise a kid and it takes a village to get back on the court,” says Williams, who credits Embrace Scar Therapy products for helping reduce the tension and visibility of her c-section scar as she returns to tennis.
“That’s kind of what happened to me. I just have so many positive people around me that keep reminding me that I can do this.”