Specialized lenses help WNBA star improve her focus on and off the court

Diamond DeShields undergoes an eye exam

As an athlete and inspiration to her young fans, Diamond DeShields is a standout. The 6-foot-1 WNBA guard was named National Freshman of the Year in college, drafted third by the Chicago Sky in 2018 and earned first-team all-rookie honors later that year.

Even as DeShields played basketball at a world-class level, she struggled for years with distorted vision caused by an eye condition called keratoconus.

Keratoconus affects the cornea, the clear protective layer covering the front part of the eye. With keratoconus, the cornea’s structure is weakened, causing it to shift into a cone shape from a rounded one. As a result, the cornea protrudes or bulges outward from the eye, making the normally smooth optical surface irregular and distorting vision.

While its exact cause is unknown, keratoconus may be linked to genetics. People with keratoconus usually begin noticing symptoms in their teens and often are diagnosed during routine eye exams. Symptoms may include blurred vision and seeing multiple images, glare and halos.

For DeShields, the condition affected her aggressiveness and confidence on the basketball court, sometimes preventing her from seeing some of the play calls and signals from her coaches and teammates.

“I was very down about the state of my eyes and feeling like there was not much that could be done for me,” she said.

DeShields sought help for her condition at the University of Chicago Medicine, which offers personalized care for a variety of eye diseases, including keratoconus, as well as specialized contact lens services. UChicago Medicine is the official medical provider for the WNBA Chicago Sky.

Glasses and regular contact lenses don’t help with the corneal irregularities caused by keratoconus. Instead, DeShields was fitted with scleral lenses — large-diameter, rigid gas-permeable contact lenses that are filled with sterile saline solution. While regular contact lenses touch the cornea, these special lenses rest on the sclera, the white part of the eye beyond the cornea. The saline solution fills in and corrects for corneal irregularities, creating a smoother optical surface and better vision.

After being properly fitted with her new lenses, DeShields noticed immediate improvement in her vison and her confidence on the court. Still, she worried about protecting her new lenses — and eyesight — during practices and games.

 That’s when she debuted what has since become part of her signature look: protective sports goggles.

Diamond DeShields sports her protective goggles on the court

“Now that I’ve started wearing the glasses, I know I can go in there and not worry about getting hit, going for rebounds or attacking the rim,” DeShields said. “Sometimes the glasses get knocked off, but if I wasn’t wearing them, I wouldn’t even be involved in some of those plays.”

DeShields’ fans and Instagram followers called her new look “cool” and “fierce.”

“Some people think my glasses are a fashion statement. Some people say I look like a superhero,” she said. “I’ve gotten feedback from a lot of young girls, young athletes, who say, ‘You make wearing glasses look cool.’”

DeShields said she doesn’t mind the attention, especially if it means young athletes will focus more on healthy vision and eye safety. She is currently planning an initiative to encourage eye exams and distribute eye glasses to young people in need.

“That’s the one thing I want people to take away,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how it looks. If you need it for your protection, then you need it. Don’t let anything stop you from striving to be the best you that you can be.”