Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today we're joined by European, World and Paralympic champion Jessica-Jane Applegate M B E. Thanks for joining us, Jessica.
Thanks for having me.
So I guess first of all, you're just back from the European Championships. You've just added four more titles to your collection. How are you feeling after it?
I was actually really pleased considering the little amount of training and access to an actual swimming pool I had. But some of the times I produced, I was really pleased with in the season. So I'm really excited going forward as to what could happen in the future.
Yes, it must be really exciting. Like you said, you haven't really had access to a swimming pool, but you know that you're still very dominant across all the different events you swam. Four races, four golds, that must feel great.
Yes, it was really good. But me being the hard person I am, I'm always taking into consideration it was the Europeans and not everyone from the world was there. I'm always looking to better myself, and I am really tough on myself. So I already know what I want to be doing in the next few months; go back to training really hard.
Like you're saying there, you're very, very tough on yourself. What went well? What didn't? What are you thinking? 'Right, moving towards Tokyo, that's what I'm really going to hone in on'?
So the 200 Free was probably the hardest race, probably because it was the longest and required the most amount of fitness, so I suffered a bit in that one. And then my 100 Free and 100 Fly were both straight finals, so I didn't have an opportunity to go heat to final and practice. So, it was a good chance to try going all-out straight away. And there are specific things in there that I need to work on. My 100 Fly, I absolutely died. So, there's probably a fitness element there, and probably working on how I go out in my race. And then the 100 Freestyle is for a relay event, so that will be, depending on where I swim in the race as well, depending on whether I need to work on a start or a takeover, because my start going in to that race, it was not good just because we were rushed a bit out. I was the last one out, and it was pretty much, 'To your marks, go.'
Do you prefer the individuals, or is the relay where you come alive? Because I know some people, they get to the individual events, and they find it really hard to do it for themselves. When it's for a team, they're just a different person.
I feel like I can go for both. Some days though, I have a mental switch where it doesn't really matter how fast the other person is going, I want to beat them, literally. But other times, I'm like, 'Oh, they're so fast. How am I going to beat them?' The relay is going to be hard because it's a mixed relay. And I am the slowest in the relay, so I feel like I've got to step up my game to not let anyone down.
Do you like that pressure?
I feel like if I didn't have the pressure, I'd probably be too relaxed.
So when you feel like you've got to step on it for the team, you come in to your own?
That's cool. You mentioned a few things that you struggled with. For those watching at home, can you give us an overview of Para-Swimming, and then where you sit within the different classifications?
Yes, so I'll run through all of them. S 1 to S 10 is physical classes. S 11 to 13 is visual. And then 14 is intellectual, which is me. I have many learning disabilities, it's not just 1 or 2. I have that, and then I also have Autism on the side, which isn't part of the S 14. And then how the Paralympics works, we have events divided up between all of the classes. And the events I can compete in are 200 Free, 200 I M, 100 Back, 100 Breast, 100 Fly, and then we have the relay of the 100 Free.
In those ones, which do you see as your main event?
It used to be the 200 Free, but the 100 Fly got added in 2018 and I always used to love the 100 Fly. I used to enter it even if I wasn't allowed to compete in it, so I was really excited when that one got added. So it probably is torn between the 200 Free and the 100 Fly, and then probably next, 100 Back. But you probably won't catch me doing breaststroke.
Going back to disability and how it affects your specific performance, how does it affect your performance in the pool?
I feel like with the 14s, it can be very different between all of us. So one of my main factors is my reaction can be a bit rubbish compared to some others, and I am crazy forgetful. I will be swimming a 400 metre and I'll stop after 300 and think, 'Oh, I'm done.' And I've turned around and my time's three-minutes, and I'm like, 'I definitely didn't do that time.' So my memory is not good. And I feel like it's really hard to explain to people what a learning disability is because, obviously, I've lived with it my whole life.
I guess it's kind of normal for you.
Yes, it's normal. I used to struggle to deal with it until I was about 15 years old, and I feel like swimming has helped a lot. It's made me become a person and not just stress about everything. But telling the time in training, remembering what we're doing, remembering what way round in the lane we're supposed to be going, and there's lots of little bits that I'm trying to think of, which I can't think of right now. But I can't do stroke counting. I can't do any of that. And I don't really work off rates. I literally just look at my time and be like, 'Well, that was good. That was rubbish.' But I know on feel, so if I go on feel, then I know whether it felt good or whether it felt bad.
Is that pretty reliable for you, just how you feel in the water?
Is that, pretty much, always bang on with the way you feel?
Yes, so I know that if I messed up a turn, I'm like, 'Oh, I need to make up for that in the race.' I normally just go on how I feel, rather than… There's no way I'd be able to count my strokes and count my lengths and everything all at the same time. I find it really complicated. So my coach and me just worked out that I can just go on feel, and that's just what I've been trained to do now.
Going back, you mentioned how swimming was your place. Has that really helped you then, swimming? Has it helped you understand and improve on some areas you weren't great at?
Yes, definitely. I was never a social person. I used to struggle to talk to people. And then I found that people at swimming, we have a common interest, so it was easier to talk about things in a set. And then I managed to build some relationships with some people that were pretty clever, and they'd tell me halfway through the set, 'Jess, we're doing this next. Jess, we're doing that next,' just to make sure that I knew what we were doing. So that's been a massive help. A lot of them have actually taught me how to use a clock, so I've been watching. I'm more of an observer rather than taking part, so I observe what people are doing, and that's taught me a lot of things. And then just obviously throughout swimming, my career going the way it has, has made me deal with things a lot better, like media, socializing, and events and stuff like that, and learning more and having access to more information about swimming.
Would you say that swimming has helped you not just for your performance in the pool, but just generally in life?
As a person, yes, definitely.
Where has that contributed most? Like you said, in the socialising?
Yes, the socialising, being able to have a conversation with someone.
Yes, because catch me 10 years ago, I probably wouldn't have been here talking to you.
I work with a few para-swimmers, and obviously you see massive improvements in the pool, but it's often not that, it's just the general person. You become way more confident, more comfortable. Is that something that you've just found, the more you swam, the more confident and comfortable you become?
Yes, definitely. And obviously with swimming, you only really swim. You don't really do anything else, so you only really meet people that are interested in the same things as you, so it makes things a lot easier.
Yes, that's awesome. So if we take a step back to the start, where your career blew up, 2012 Olympics. You mentioned before we actually started recording that that was your first major international home games. How was that?
I think because I turned 16 in the holding camp, I was really young and naïve. To me, it was just a competition. I was like, 'Oh, it's just a competition. Just going to go there to do my best,' or whatever. And then it wasn't until I was actually swimming my final, I felt the pressure between the heats to the finals because I was first fastest. I remember I actually put up a Facebook post saying, 'Guys, just because I'm first fastest into the final, please don't expect me to win.'
Why did you feel like you wanted to say that? Or did you feel a lot of pressure and you didn't want to let people down? What was it?
Yes, people just got really excited. And I felt, maybe because it was a home one, they were getting too excited, and I just didn't want them to be like, 'Oh', after. So I remember just writing it and sending it off and then turning my phone off and not thinking about anything else.
Say you hadn't won that, say you'd come second, would you have seen that as a failure?
If you were already saying, 'Don't watch. I might not win,' would you think that second or a bronze even would have been a failure?
Yes, to me it would have been.
So at your first international games, how come that would have been a failure? Just because of the sports mentality?
Yes, I feel like, to me, I don't like coming second, I don't like coming third. I actually came fourth two days before.
Oh, really? In a different event? Which event was that in?
Yes. In the 100 Backstroke. But I didn't put any pressure on myself in that. It wasn't really my event.
So after the fourth in the 100 Back, how was it?
But then I was cross, yes. I was quite cross because I was like, 'Ah, fourth.'
Do you think that helped the 200 Free?
Yes. At competitions, I like to have that first race experience, so you get to experience the crowd, get to experience the pool and everything. But I felt like I would just put it up because I didn't want the pressure. I didn't want anyone to be disappointed with me because I knew everyone was really excited, because obviously it was a home games. Everything was televised at the time, and it was just a bit mad. My phone was going absolutely crazy, and I was like, 'Help.' I just remember sitting on a call. Well, I always phone my coach just before, so I phoned my coach before I went to the call-up room, and then was petrified. I was like, 'I am petrified.' My coach was like, 'Just put your hood up. Put your goggles on. Don't look at anyone. Just concentrate on your race.' And basically, we had a bit of an advantage because we watched the Olympics first, and we watched a lot of the Olympians, the G B Team, go out too fast because of the excitement. So he was like, 'Just hold back. You've been training the whole time. You know exactly what you need to do on feel. Just go and do it, and you'll be fine.'
That's amazing. You mentioned you felt like you were very naïve going into that whole competition, do you actually feel that helped you then?
Yes, because I still didn't register that I had won a medal.
Let alone gold.
Yes, it didn't even register. I was just like, 'Oh, I won. That's cool.'
Just won a race?
Just won a race. 'I'm fastest in the world this year, this is cool.' And then I was just emotional after because I think it's the first competition I've ever been allowed to go to, and I was just emotional. And then, because the security was really tight at London, I remember being like, 'I need to go see my mum and my coach right now and I'm going.' I remember my mum was actually on the back row at the stadium, and I literally pelted it all the way up the stairs and my legs were on fire by the end of it. It was really nice because I felt safe. It felt like a family atmosphere there.
What, the whole games?
It was really nice. So I ran up, and at not one point did I feel unsafe. And my mum had told everyone, and they were like, 'It's your little girl.' So that was quite cool. But it didn't really fully register that I was at a Paralympic games… until I did the third turn. So I think I was fifth after 100-metres, and I remember going up that third length and then turning. And then I must have turned in third. I knew that I'd turned in a position because the crowd just went bananas. I could feel them stamping on the stadium. And then I just remember gritting my teeth. My coach was like, 'No one gets disqualified for dying, so just go for it.'
So you really just knew that you were in a medal position on that last 50, and you just felt like it was your time to go?
Is that the way you mentioned about training for feel? Did you just feel that was the right way to go?
In the first season of the podcast, we spoke to Richard Whitehead, and he said after the 2012 games, he felt like there was a massive shift for Paralympic sport. Did you feel the same?
I think it was difficult for me because I was never involved in the Paralympic sport before 2012. So I never really knew it. I watched the Olympics in 2008. I remember watching Michael Phelps, the typical swimmer thing being like, 'Oh, my God. He's amazing. I want to swim.' So I watched that and I was like, 'Yes.' And then I don't think I actually watched the Paralympics in 2008. It wasn't really a thing. And then obviously every year since, it seems to have got bigger and bigger.
Were you swimming in 2008 though?
Yes, I'd just joined.
Had you joined as a non-para swimmer, just swimming because you loved it?
Yes. I'll tell you a story. I didn't join myself. My mum signed me up because I was getting in trouble at school.
Yes, too much energy.
So this was a way to…?
Burn it off, yes.
Did you feel like that worked?
Yes, because I was tired.
How old were you then, when you joined the swimming club?
I want to say 9 or 10. It was quite late for a swimmer.
Did you feel quite uncomfortable at school compared to in the pool then?
Was that just where you were at home?
Yes, the pool felt like I was in a normal thing, whereas school, I was in a special unit and I was the special kid and it was quite annoying.
I think so many people you speak to around sport find it as the place they enjoy to be, but I think, from what you're saying, it was this place you just found yourself. We mentioned earlier about your confidence and how you felt more comfortable as you were 15, 16, getting older and older. Was that straight away when you joined swimming, and did you just feel a difference?
Basically, I just started swimming. I didn't even know how to swim. Well, I knew how to swim, my mum taught me how to swim without armbands at 18 months old, but it was just to survive, it wasn't any skills or anything. So I just joined to learn some skills, and then eventually I loved it more, and more, and more, and then I started competing, but I didn't really enjoy it. I used to get beaten by the same girl every competition and I used to hate it, and then one competition I was like, 'You know, I am fed up with being beaten by her.' And then I actually tried really hard, and beat her, and then I was like, 'Oh, this is cool, I like winning.' Yes, and then everything just spiralled from there. And then, there was a girl in the club who used to swim at the special Olympics, and was like, 'Oh, you could actually get her classified for Paralympics.' So then we just went through that, kind of, process.
Why do think Para-swimming has done so well?
I think it's difficult because all of us look at the able-bodied and think, 'Why is theirs on the BBC Red Button?' Because ours is just a highlight show, so if you swam and you didn't swim that well, you wouldn't be shown. So we only get a highlight show about two weeks after, but they put it on the link, on their 4oD I think it is, or something like that. So we always look at the able-bodied and say, 'Uh, why?' But I think they did a big bid for it in 2012 and then they've just continued paying for the rights of our thing, and I think Channel 4 like us because they're quite a diverse channel, aren't they?
I think definitely after 2012, Channel 4 really took the reigns with Para-sport. Do you feel like that as well, and do you feel like they really care?
Yes, they obviously support diversity and I guess the Paralympics is a great way to show that. But yes, I think they've done a really good job at showcasing, they've been one of the biggest reasons Paralympics has got better.
And do you see that carrying on, do you see Paralympics becoming more and more prevalent as we move on through the next 10, 15 years?
It would be really nice, because obviously the Paralympics change all the time. Obviously, 2012 was the first time I was allowed to compete, and then there's more and more different classes, and more and more sports that are going to be allowed to take place, so fingers crossed it will get a little bit more awareness.
What do you see as the next step that Para-swimming needs, or should be going, if that makes sense?
It's not even just Para, it would be nice if swimming in general, was on the TV. Just like football, but obviously we don't have the money like football. I don't know if you've watched it, but the Australian Trials being on Amazon was pretty good.
And do you think that's a way that British swimming should go, in terms of integrating? Because Australian Trials is integrated, isn't it, with Para, non-Para swimming. Do you think that's a good thing?
I think that's really good. We used to do that for nationals and British Champs, and it used to work really well. But I think it can be difficult sometimes to incorporate us, because sometimes the lower classes take a long time, and it can be quite annoying I think for the able-bodied swimmers to sit around and wait for someone that takes 10 minutes to swim a 400.
You've obviously trained in the swimming spa the whole way through, pretty much all through the lockdowns we've had, and you had a TikTok that went very viral. Is it over 30 million views?
Yes, 30 million or 29.9, or something stupid.
Why do you think this blew up so much?
Well, basically, we had some crazy weather, and the tub was fully snowed on. It was a good 10-metres of snow on the top of the lid, and I just thought it would be really funny. It wasn't even for TikTok at the time, just to go out there in my wellies and be a bit of a numpty, and be like, 'Oh, I'm swimming in the snow, get me.' I put it together, not thinking at all about what was going to happen because none of my TikToks had many views at all. I just put it together, and I basically just wrote on there, 'This is how much I want to get to Tokyo, I'm training in the snow in minus-two.' And then people just started arguing on it, in the comments section, and I think because people were arguing, every comment boosts the post. So, they were saying, 'Minus-two isn't cold, you should try swimming in Canada, it's minus-52.' And then I was like, 'That's not really the idea of it, but...' And then it was like, 'You shouldn't be in the Paralympics, you've got all your arms and legs, there's nothing wrong with you.' And then there was just, 'It's not cold.' Inappropriate comments. And they were talking about the jacuzzi, and 'Why is she swimming on the spot, she's not going anywhere, what's she going to achieve with just swimming on the spot?' And, 'How is she not moving, what is she doing, why is she just floating in the swimming pool?'
So social media, do you find that to be a benefit, as an athlete, or do you find that to have a little bit of a negative effect sometimes?
Obviously, I won in 2012, but I feel like now, if you want any sponsorship deals or anything, you've got to be an influencer, and you've got to have the followers, and you've got to have the social media presence. If not, they're not interested. Whereas it's not like the days of Gary Lineker getting sponsored by Walkers and stuff like that, people are not really interested in that anymore. They want the influencers to promote their products and they want good content. So I feel like, if you want to be part of that, you have to be present on social media, and you have to be rigid in what you post, and what you can and can't post, and make sure you don't upset anyone.
Do you get a lot of hate comments?
Yes, quite a lot. I got a lot of hate in 2012, but I managed to just block those people and then they never, kind of, come back. But I think after TikTok hitting so many people, it kind of just went a bit crazy with the hate. It was like extremes from, 'You're not disabled, you're only missing an eyelash.' Or, 'You're too fat to swim.' Or, 'You're not built right to swim.'
Did you find that difficult to deal with?
It did get to me a bit, but at the same time, I kind of laughed it off and was like, 'You literally know nothing.'
I think that's quite a powerful thing to do, you're obviously taking every eventuality to be able to train, to go and chase your goal. And I guess, when people try and rip that apart, I think it's quite a hard thing to do, just brush it off, but it sounds like you did quite a good job of it.
Yes. I think swimming and stuff makes you tough, doesn't it, and it only makes you stronger, what you've been through. So them hating on me for absolutely no reason, I could just shrug it off and be like, 'Okay, whatever, this is just a comment on the video and actually, you commenting on the video is boosting the video.' So that's how I looked at it, yes.
I believe you're the only elite Para-swimmer that decided not to move to a national centre, and have access to a swimming pool throughout the lockdowns and every training facility you could ask for. What was the decision behind that?
Basically, I love where I live and I have three dogs, and if I was to up-and-move, my dogs would either have to come with me or my mum would have to quit her job. But mental health-wise, I didn't see it being very good for my mental health to just up-and-move and live in a hotel room for the foreseeable future. Because it was going to be really strict, you weren’t going to be able to leave the hotel room for anything other than swimming. Whereas here, I could go for walks, I could take my dogs out for a walk, I could go for bike rides. Yes, I just really enjoy where I live and I thought, 'I'd rather be happy and healthy, than stressed.'
So did you struggle with your mental health, or did you find it really hard not having access to a normal swimming pool?
Yes, I found it hard because a lot of people were posting on social media, 'Oh, I've just done the final session of the week on Saturday.' And I was like, 'Uh, I would absolutely love to be in a swimming pool right now.' And I found it hard, but I think it probably made be mentally tougher because I was like, 'Right, I'm going to go out and have a really good bike session.' 'I'm going to go get in the swim spa.' And just do my thing, and at the end of the day, I just wanted to be happy and enjoy what I was doing, rather than think about all the pressures of everything else, that everyone else will be feeling.
I guess that's a great perspective to have. Obviously, a lot of people struggle through lockdowns with mental health, but you almost accepted that, and then turned it round into a positive, in terms of how much better it's going to make you as an athlete, and it made you 10 times more determined to succeed at Tokyo, knowing the struggle it's had to be.
Yes, definitely. And I'm really lucky that I've got a really good support network. My coach was on furlough and obviously he wasn't coaching, but I would ring him up monthly and be crying on the phone to him, 'I just want to swim.' And then obviously, my mum bared most of it because I live with her. So it was really hard, but they really supported me through everything.
How important do you think that support network is to succeeding as an athlete?
So important, because I feel like if you've someone to talk to about your worries then it's going to make it a lot easier. And my coach is really good, he always backs what I say and will just go with it, but at the same time, he will tell if I'm doing something wrong. So yes, it was just great to have him being like, 'You are making the right decisions.' 'Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, just concentrate on yourself.’ ‘If you need a day off, take a day off.' ‘Don't stress too much about doing too much. If you're doing too much, it's going to make it worse.'
I think so many athletes talk about their support network being often the key to their success, and it's almost like they're doing everything they can as an athlete, but if they haven't got that network, it just wouldn't happen. Do you feel the same?
Yes, definitely. The amount of times I've had a breakdown on my coach and just cried before my race. And I wouldn't have made it to my race if my coach hadn't physically took me to the call-up room, and been like, 'You are going to be okay, and you're going to dive in this race, and you're going to do it like this.' So yes, without him, without my mum, and my partner now, because I nagged him a lot about how annoying I find it when everyone else was training and I can't train.
So looking forward then, Tokyo – are you feeling really confident ahead of it?
Probably not so much, but I guess there's not really much I can do about it now, the damage has been done. So the only thing I can do now, is just do the best that I can leading into the games, and then just see what happens. But my main competitions are Australian and Japanese, and I know them pretty well, and they've been training the entire time.
I guess when you're standing on the blocks, no one can want to win as much as you have, after the last year and a half, that inner confidence of knowing you've done everything you can. Surely that's going to be a massive boost?
Yes, it is. And the biggest thing, I don't know who said it to me, but the only thing that people from the outside looking in see is that time. They don't see the excuse next to your name, 'Oh, there was a pandemic.' 'Oh, I broke my ankle last month.' They don't see that, they just see the time and your place. So you don't really have an excuse because that's what it is, that's the result, you can't do anything about it.
So then if you look past Tokyo, how long do you see yourself staying in competitive swimming for yourself?
I'm actually really excited because, for the first time ever, female S 14s are going to be allowed to compete at the Commies. Male S 14s have been allowed to compete at the last 2 cycles, but not females.
No idea. So, I'll definitely be hanging around for those.
So that's another home games then, in Birmingham?
Yes. So I'm really excited about those, and then potentially, if it's only 2 more years, I might just see it through. It literally just depends on what the rest of the world is doing, because I'm not a sore loser, but I'm not going to be hanging around if I'm not going to be making a final.
And do you see yourself moving out of swimming for yourself, and either coaching or helping young swimmers, and that kind of thing?
I did do my level 1 teaching. I do want to go into that, but at the same time, responsibilities stress me out sometimes. And I'm really happy with how my life is at the minute, and I don't really see my life changing any time in the near future, other than potentially… I don't know, I just seem to give all my time to charity stuff. I just give all my time to looking after rescue dogs. So potentially, I want to open my own rescue, but I know that's debt for the rest of my life.
Is it animal charities you're mainly involved in?
Yes, and I volunteer for a company called Olio. It's not a charity, but I basically go and collect, at a set time, all of a store's waste that they would have binned that night, so I did it last night. And I will take it all, then I'll bring it all home and photograph every single item, upload it to an app, and people will say what they want. And then I get it ready, and they come and collect what they want.
Do you think that spreads from your support network you've mentioned, around how you feel your support network has really helped you, and do you think that filters down into you wanting to help other people as well?
Yes, definitely. My mum has always been a really hard worker, and she gives a lot to everyone else, and she never really takes much time to herself. So I think it probably rubs off on me a bit. So yes, she definitely probably makes me give a lot more than I need to.
That's awesome, thanks again for joining us. That's been amazing and best of luck for Tokyo this year. Thanks everyone, for joining us on the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. Make sure to subscribe to the channel wherever you're watching us, leave a like, and leave a comment or a view letting us know what you'd like us to ask our guests. We'll see you next time.