Tayla Williams can easily go back and pinpoint her worst Super Netball performances, as they’ve often fallen on the days she didn’t want to get out of bed.

Over four seasons, the 2023 premiership player has built a reputation as a crafty mid-courter, while also becoming an unofficial spokesperson for those suffering with endometriosis.

The 24-year-old has been open about her struggles with heavy periods and says she doesn’t have a regular menstrual cycle: meaning her period rears its head unexpectedly, can last a long time and drastically disrupts her game-day prep.

It took Williams seven years and two surgeries to receive an official diagnosis, and she’s not alone. A million Australian girls, women, and those assigned female at birth live with the disease at some point in their life.

This writer, too, is one of them.

On average, a diagnosis can be delayed up to six-and-a-half years. Mine took close to 20.

The pain, heavy bleeding and fertility issues can be isolating, but speaking about it can help to empower those living with the disease.

As a netballer, Williams makes the perfect spokesperson.

Netball is the number one female team sport in this country, with over a million participants. Based on sheer numbers, it’s a great match.

So, as the federal government invests $50 million in women’s reproductive health, we take a closer look at Williams’s story and her determination to break taboos around period talk.

Early signs

The first indication something might be wrong came during Williams’s early years at high school, as she started to move up the South Australian pathway and be selected for state teams.

Her training intensified and she struggled to keep up, particularly when she got her period.

The cramping has always been bad, but with such a busy workload it grew worse: affecting her sleep, energy levels and performances on the court.

“It was only when it impacted my netball that we really started looking into it,” Williams said.

“My mum has the same issues I do, but she has never been diagnosed, so in the very beginning, it all looked and felt like a normal menstrual experience in her eyes.

“I didn’t speak about it enough either … I just tried to cope and get on with life, which is not OK, because if I had my time again, I would definitely speak up.”

Her period was much heavier than her friends at school and Williams remembers changing her tampon at every break, for fear of bleeding through. Sometimes she also had to ask for permission to go to the toilet during class and felt extremely embarrassed.

“When you’re at that age, it’s a taboo thing that you don’t know much about, so you only kind of have a rough idea of what your friends are going through,” Williams said.

“For me, having to change the super tampons, sleeping with heavy-duty pads at night.

“Those constant precautions that you take and not feeling comfortable to have those conversations in front of people was really hard.

“When we finally did go to the doctor, I was put straight on the pill, which only masked my symptoms … It didn’t help the underlying cause.”

After visiting several GPs and getting a long list of tests done, Williams eventually found a female doctor and gynaecologist who understood.

They suspected she may have had endometriosis and referred her onto the right pathway to work towards a diagnosis, whilst trialling a range of drugs and treatments to help combat the pain.

A painful debut

In December 2019, Williams was named in the Australian 21U squad for the Netball World Youth Cup set to take place in Fiji in June 2021.

Her first training partner contract with the Adelaide Thunderbirds followed in March 2020. But the year did not go to plan, as COVID hit the country and lockdown shutdown sport.

Tayla Williams plays during the 2020 Super Netball hub.(AAP: Albert Perez)

The Netball World Youth Cup was postponed to December 2021 and the Super Netball season was delayed until August.

When the league was finally given the OK to go ahead, it had to be played in a Queensland hub. A condensed season was announced and team sizes were extended from 10 to 12 players to help manage athlete fatigue.

Thunderbirds training partners Williams and Georgie Horjus were elevated to the senior group, travelling north to be part of the bubble.

Many netballers have spoken about how mentally draining that season was and Williams had an extra layer of difficulty as she bled for the entire two months.

Pushing through the pain to try and make the most of her debut season, Williams’s coaches grew increasingly concerned as she lay on the changing room floor in agony during team meetings.

Away from her family interstate, the club helped investigate what on earth was going on and scans uncovered a few polyps.

Williams’s defensive pressure at centre is one of the strengths of her game.(Getty: Sarah Reed)

Williams knew she was on the cusp of a debut and made the decision to hold off surgery.

Her maiden cap came against Sunshine Coast Lightning in round six, where she had the difficult task of facing New Zealand legend Laura Langman.

“That was one of my worst memories, I played terribly: I really didn’t say as much as I should have because I just wanted to play.”

The mid-courter appeared five times in total for the Thunderbirds throughout that season and missed out on a top-10 contract for 2021 but maintained her spot as a training partner.

Returning home, Williams had the clean-out required to stop the bleeding.

Finally getting a diagnosis

Doctors had floated the idea of more surgery — this time a laparoscopy — as the only real way to confirm endometriosis.

Yet, Williams had been working so hard towards the Word Youth Cup and was pretty much locked in to train all year round.

She didn’t want to go through the six-to-eight-weeks recovery and risk her spot on the team. Unfortunately, by March 2021, the tournament was cancelled anyway as COVID cases spiked and the pandemic prevented overseas travel.

Contax players, including Williams at WD, celebrate their one-goal victory.(Image: Netball South Australia)

The Super Netball league jumped from state to state trying to avoid lockdown and Williams concentrated her efforts on playing for Contax in the South Australian Premier League.

It ended up being a cracking season. The Contax won the grand final with a goal in the final seconds and Williams was picked in the team of the year.

In October, Williams’s dream came true as she was rewarded with her first full-time Thunderbirds contract. She had pushed through to hit the big time, but she still hadn’t resolved her pain.

With the 2022 season on the horizon, her health professionals devised a plan.

After exhausting all other options, they’d determined Williams would take a menopausal drug to stop her period, with the aim to have a laparoscopy at the end of the Super Netball season.

The Thunderbirds missed finals and were done by June.

Williams got her first real crack at Super Netball in season 2022.(Getty Images: Daniel Pockett)

That gave Williams a clear window to go under the knife and finally receive an official diagnosis.

“You question yourself a lot going through the process, so it was a relief,” Williams said.

“It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, knowing I hadn’t been making it up in my head and there was actually something there causing the pain.

“Pretty soon after that, though, I was flooded with sadness and frustration, knowing I’ve got something I’m going to have to deal with for a long time yet.

“There’s no cure, there’s no amazing treatment option, there’s not a lot of research.”

Dealing with the mental toll

The Thunderbirds’ next campaign, in 2023, was hugely successful, culminating in their first title in a decade and cementing Williams’s name in history as one of their champion players.

She was also selected for Australia’s Fast 5 side that went on to win the modified netball series.

Thunderbirds lift the winner’s trophy after the 2023 grand final.(AAP: James Ross)

Alas, her health problems persisted and there were a few games along the way that tested her resilience. At one point, she bled for 55 days straight.

Round four against the Giants that year is one that sticks out in her mind, after her period hit less than 24 hours before the match, as pain once again impeded her sleep.

This year, Williams was determined to help the team defend their title.

Thunderbirds players fall in a heap as they celebrate winning the title.(Getty: Graham Denholm)

She’d had a great pre-season — without a period — that returned with a vengeance right before the opening game. For the first four rounds, Williams bled on and off. It was a hard slog.

Since then, it has stopped and the mid-courter has got back to impeccable form.

Now the Thunderbirds sit in the top two, with three weeks to go before finals.

Williams has been one of their best players, praised for her defensive mindset at centre.

Still, it is mentally taxing knowing her body could let her down at any given moment and potentially derail her performances as we reach the pointy end.

The Thunderbirds celebrate their title with a presentation at their home venue.(ABC News: Imogen Hayne)

“I don’t have a cycle, so I never know when my period is going to come, how long it’s going to last for, how heavy it’s going to be or the level of pain,” Williams said.

“Managing all of that is really difficult and the last thing you feel like doing is playing a netball game — it’s just not the best preparation to play.

“For me, what I’ve learnt is that you can have endometriosis and you can have heavy and painful periods, sometimes it’s related and sometimes not.

“It’s hard to say whether my endo has come back after my surgery or if the chronic pain I’ve put up with for a long time is just me and trying to navigate the what-ifs are tricky.

“It continues to impact my mental health and the motivation to want to get up for the day.

“No matter what, I know I’m going to have to show up for my teammates on those bad days, but it all adds to the mental load as I try to live some kind of normal life.”

Breaking stigmas

Williams’s journey has been an emotional rollercoaster and she’s found it easier to discuss the more she opens up, almost therapeutically.

The first time she spoke about it publicly was via Instagram, allowing her to get everyone up to speed, rather than plucking up the courage to approach people individually, face-to-face.

Since then, Williams has been flooded with messages. Some from her closest friends, who she didn’t even realise were going through the same thing.

Netball, too, has been a big part of her life and feels like the right place to spark a conversation.

“I’m one of the first netballers to open up on this topic and I struggle with that sometimes because I don’t necessarily want the attention,” Williams said.

“But being in such a female-dominated sport provides the perfect platform to get a message out to women of all ages, so hopefully we can break down the taboo.

“That’s why I’ve really enjoyed being part of Netball Australia and HCF’s Inside the Circle videos.

“My thought process is that if I continue to talk about it, maybe that will help someone else feel OK to talk about what they’re going through to their parents or friends.

“It really shouldn’t be a topic that is hidden or pushed away.

“We need to be educating our girls better in schools and doing more across women’s sport to teach athletes about their menstrual cycle and fertility.”

Endometriosis can impact people’s ability to fall pregnant but right now, Williams has age on her side.

Once she’s found a better way to manage her periods over the next couple of years, she plans to investigate her fertility health. Such as finding out her egg count and more about egg freezing.

“Super Netball’s parental policy means you don’t have to give up your career to have kids … We’ve got so many role models in our sport that have taken a break to start a family and then come back, so it’s reassuring to know it is now a possibility.”

The information shared in this article is the individual’s experience only. For detailed personal advice about menstrual and fertility health, see a qualified practitioner who knows your medical history.