A few weeks ago I contacted Jessica to see if she would mind answering a few questions for me. As many of you may know, Jessica represented Australia at the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens, but it's the work that she's done since then that truly makes her an inspiration. She has created an award winning social media campaign to promote positive body image, she speaks openly about her own experience with an eating disorder, she has become a children's book author, and more recently, has become mum to baby Ayla. So the fact that she said yes, and took the time to answer these questions for me, had me doing a mini happy dance in the kitchen! Not only did she answer them, but she did so with the sensitivity and the candour that I love her for.
1.Tell us a little bit about your swimming career. How did you get into swimming, and what is it like to compete at an elite level? The Paralympic Games at such a young age must have been epic!
I started swimming almost as soon as I could walk! Growing up I basically lived in the backyard pool, but up until the age of ten it was all just a lot of splashing about.
Then at my first school swimming meet, I raced for the first time – and won! I beat all the girls and boys with 2 arms, and it was then that I told myself, I wanted to be a ‘Swimmer’.
At age 13 I was selected onto the Australian Swimming Team, I was the baby of the team but I successfully represented Australia for just over 7 years.
In 2004 my ultimate dream came true and I was selected onto the Australia Team to compete at the Athens Paralympic Games, I was just 19.
It was the most exhilarating time of my life.
There is nothing more fulfilling than wearing the green and gold and representing your country at the Olympics.
Unfortunately for me though, it was a bitter sweet period. Yes I had reached the pinnacle of my career, but it was also the lowest point in my life. I had been living with anorexia and bulimia since the age of 14, and it was during the Athens Paralympics that my body finally gave up.
I didn’t swim as well as I was expected to.
It was devastating.
I returned home to Australia and was admitted to a rehab facility where I spent six weeks.
My swimming career was over – I was forced into early retirement (age 20).
It was my ultimate rock bottom.
But of course, looking back now, I realise it was the beginning of the next chapter (as cliché and as corny as that may sound).
2. You have achieved so many amazing things in your life so far. What gives you the strength and drive to keep achieving?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure, I just know that I’ve always had an innate ability and drive to push the boundaries, to prove people wrong and to show the world that I don’t have to be limited by my appearance.
Because of that mentality I guess I’m able to apply myself to so many different things, and when you achieve something the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it can be addictive, so in many ways I’m addicted to that sense of achievement. I never let anything get in my way, and I’m definitely an all or nothing person.
Throughout my life the motivation behind what I do has of course changed, first it was the motivation of winning gold for my country that helped me get to training every day for ten years, now it’s my daughter Ayla who inspires and motivates me to always be accountable for my actions and to always be striving for bigger and better things.
3. Now that you’re a busy mumma, how do you fit physical activity or training into your routine?
With great difficulty!
I don’t have any family support here in Perth, and my husband works very long hours, so often then only option for including physical activity into my day is by going walking with the pram. Thankfully Ayla enjoys being in the pram and will often sleep if we go out for a morning stroll – sometimes I only make it as far as the nearest café, but it all counts!
I do try to squeeze in as much yoga and stretching as I can, some days I get lucky and can do a solid half hour while Ayla sleeps, but other days I might only get ten minutes.
As a former athlete this has been a really challenging transition for me. I’ve had to really let go of my idea of ‘training’ and instead embrace the opportunities I get to be active.
I’m nowhere near as fit as I used to be, but I know one day I’ll be able to dedicate time and energy to my training again.
4. What has been the most challenging aspect of motherhood for you so far?
Far out, the exhaustion is like nothing else. It is something that only mother’s can understand.
When my friends without kids complain how tired they are … I just smile.
Sleep deprivation is something that you cannot prepare yourself for. No amount of rest during pregnancy can make up for the lack of sleep that new mums experience.
This has absolutely had an impact on my mental and emotional wellbeing. Ayla has never slept longer than 3.5 hours.
In those early weeks and months, some days I just cried. I had no idea how I could go another day without sleep. But, as mums, we just find a way of ploughing forward.
It really is a shame that this topic isn’t discussed more openly within society. I feel that mothers everywhere need more understanding when it comes to sleep deprivation.
I try to be as honest and transparent as I can when talking about this issue – because I am certain that the lack of sleep mums experience is directly linked to postnatal depression, and the only way to reduce the stigma that unfortunately still exists around PND – is to talk about it
5. What helps you to pull through on those difficult days?
Knowing that tomorrow is a different day.
This is something I struggled with for many many years – feeling trapped in a negative cycle of depression when some things just seemed too much to handle.
Through my own experience with depression and recovery, I now understand that every one has good and bad days, it’s inevitable. But dwelling on something just makes it worse, so it’s about being aware, taking time to acknowledge the tough days, and then acknowledging that tomorrow is a different day.
Being a mum is by far the hardest job in the world, and some days really just suck!
I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m lost and lonely … the best way to deal with those feelings is to just feel them. And then, move on.
It’s something that doesn’t always come easy, and like I said, I’ve had to work really hard on being able to do this … but it is my mindset that gets me through.
6. What is the one piece of advice that you would offer to anyone about to embark on this crazy journey into motherhood?
In the early days I doubted myself so much. I questioned every decision I made, and because I didn’t follow my gut instinct I made some decisions that I wish I hadn’t. I let other people try to tell me how to be a mother – I realise now that no one can tell you how to mother your own child. If we just follow our own instinct and do whatever FEELS right – we can’t go wrong.
Society needs to focus less on giving opinionated advice to new mums, and more on supporting their decisions – whatever they may be.
The best thing I have learnt so far, is to simply do what feels right to ME.
7. It seems like you don’t let much stand in your way, but is there a risk you would take if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Hmm good question …. If I knew I couldn’t fail …. I want to say be the next Prime Minister, or release an album and be famous and have friends like Adele and Beyonce … but I can’t sing and I don’t know much about politics…If I knew I couldn’t fail, I would invest all my time, energy and money into creating beautiful books for EVERY child on the planet. The kids who are living in refugee camps, the kids living in orphanages or on the streets, the kids who have learning difficulties or disabilities – I do not want that to sound patronising in any way, because I genuinely wish I could do this.
… I don’t let much get in my way, so maybe one day that dream will come true.
8. What do you believe is your greatest strength?
Honesty. I can’t lie and even when I try I have the worst poker face.
I try to be as transparent and authentic as I possibly can, in every situation. The world seems to be full of illusion, falseness and surrealism …
I find it so exhausting.
Whenever I am giving a talk, whether it be to a room of teenage girls or corporates – I am the same person, and I communicate as if everyone is on the same level as me (because they are).
I think the fact that I do my best to always be true to myself, allows me to communicate with people from all walks of life.
9. What are the top 5 things you cherish most of all in this life?
10. What’s in the future for Jessica Smith? Can you share some of the things that you would like to achieve?
2015 was a busy year for me! I got married, had a baby and published a children’s book.“Little Miss Jessica Goes to School”
It’s a beautiful story about a little girl with one hand on her first day at school. She experiences what it is like to be different, to be excluded and to feel left out. BUT, she and all the other kids realise (thanks to a wonderful teacher) that in fact they are ALL different, and being different is OK.
The book is more than just a story that introduces a character with a disaibility – it’s a story that every single child can relate to – because every single child is different.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children could read this book and after doing so, feel confident in themselves, knowing that they don’t need to compare themselves to anyone else.
I have some very exciting projects that are about to unfold based on “Little Miss Jessica”
And I’ve just finished writing books 2 and 3 in the series.
It’s busy but it’s exciting.
I would love to have more kids too – it’s incredible how clucky I am … even with NO sleep!
So, who knows what the future holds … but it will be exciting, and I would love for you all to follow me on my crazy journey! xx
Behind the blog...
‘The Mummysomniac’ is a lifestyle, motherhood and most recently, pregnancy blog, founded in 2015 by Kirsty McKenzie. She’s a mum of three, blogging about the highs and lows of motherhood, with a straight forward and honest approach, as well as a little bit of humour. Kirsty is passionate about sharing the realities of #MumLife, not the cookie cutter, high gloss version