This year’s International Women’s Day is focused around moving towards a more inclusive society.
It is something that international swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate MBE has always stood for, from waking up for training at 4am to be the best she can in the pool, to continuously supporting charitable initiatives in the community.
Jessica-Jane has learning difficulties and autism, and competed in the last two Paralympics, winning four medals including gold in London 2012. She is now working hard to secure her place in Team GB for the Games in Tokyo this summer.
Her events are backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle in the S14 classification, and she has set more than 70 British swimming records across her career while becoming an important role model for neurodiverse people around the world.
To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, Jessica-Jane took part in a Q&A with Spautism to share her experiences of sport and neurodiversity in women.
To start with, how would you describe your journey and achievements in sport?
There have definitely been more lows than highs, but nobody except my family and coach sees all of those. From the outside, people just see medals, but I see operations, long recovery, early-morning training, injury, disappointment, and relentless pool and gym sessions. But then for a qualification time to represent your country, it is all worthwhile. I would describe it as a lot of hard work that is paying off.
How important is it to raise awareness of neurodiversity in sport, and in women?
Raising awareness is the only way forward to make changes. I recently shared a TikTok video of myself training and it went viral, but the abuse and trolling I received was dreadful – women were much more supportive than men. But the video definitely raised awareness as it had more than 20 million views and made it to international news channels, so that's positive.
I have been to Parliament for sports inclusion for athletes, and I brought up the Commonwealth Games where S14 men are allowed to compete but women are not. It is well documented that women struggle in sport and drop out more than men anyway, so the fact that there is a lack of inclusion for them does not make it any easier. I try to promote inclusion as best as I can.
When you were very young, your mum wanted you to start swimming to develop water safety skills. At what point did you decide to pursue swimming competitively?
I have to wear a shoe lift [insole] in my shoe as one of my legs is longer than the other; my hips turn in and as a child I used to have physiotherapy due to the pains I would get. I also had massive amounts of energy and no focus or concentration, so swimming helped burn some of my energy, which made me more focused. I didn’t have to go to physio because we did stretches after training, so swimming helped in lots of ways.
What are the benefits of the other exercise activities that you do, such as dog walking and cycling?
I love my dogs so much; they are my therapy and they are always there for me no matter how bad I am feeling. When we walk together in the fresh air across the fields, they are so happy and I am so lucky to live near the river and the sea – it is great for my mental health to have such lovely walks close by.
I only learnt how to ride a bike last year during lockdown; my coordination is not very good and I found it really difficult. I was black and blue [with bruises] for months where I kept falling off, but once I managed to stay on long enough I joined a cycling club and they helped me a lot. I still fall off but not as much as I used to, and cycling has helped with my fitness levels while the pools have been closed during lockdown.
What have you learnt through your charity work and ambassador roles?
I am an ambassador for Mencap and they have helped me learn lots about raising awareness. I will always make time to help others when I can and I volunteer for Olio – a food waste app – as I know families are struggling more now than they were this time last year.
I also foster dogs and help out at a rescue centre. You learn how people treat animals, but some things you wish you didn't learn as the animals are innocent and scared. More animals are in need now, and the charities are increasingly struggling due to lockdown because they have not been able to put on fun days and other events. I hope things start to get better this year for them; I would rescue all the animals if I could.
Finally, do you have a message to other neurodiverse women?
Nothing is easy, but if you really want something, don’t give up, and do not let others tell you that you can't do it.
To support Jessica-Jane on her journey to the Paralympic Games this summer, you can follow her on social media: