From the Paralympics to Australia's Medal of the Order: how Jessica Smith is using her story to inspire others
We speak to the former Australian Paralympic swimmer and children’s book author, about how she’s hoping to educate children about accepting people with disabilities
“Tolerance is about being patient, understanding and accepting of what’s different. It’s freedom from prejudice, bigotry and discrimination,” says the former Australian Paralympian Jessica Smith, as part of a talk she’s giving on behalf of the embassy of Australia at Le Royal Meridien in Abu Dhabi. “I’ve been searching for tolerance my entire life, but for many years, I was looking in the wrong places.”
Smith, who is sporting an empire-waist maternity dress showing off her large baby bump, is doing this talk as part of the Year of Tolerance, which concludes as 2020 begins. She’s a former award-winning swimmer and, as we listen intently, she recounts her own difficult journey and how it inspired her to spread her own message of tolerance.
Smith was born without her left hand and forearm. As a toddler, she suffered from a kitchen accident that also left her with third-degree burns on 15 per cent of her body. Doctors warned her parents she’d likely have body-image issues as she got older, but they didn’t quite understand what that meant at the time. “Imagine being a young child hearing the murmurs of adults talking about you, but not to you, using words to describe you such as ‘disabled’ and ‘different’ and phrases such as ‘she will struggle’, ‘life will be hard’ … not very optimistic. But I believed it,” Smith remembers.
She describes the anxiety and embarrassment she felt growing up, of feeling the need to hide her body. But there was also something else – as her parents took a tough-love approach, she discovered within her a desire to prove people wrong. Her parents would say: “‘We don’t feel sorry for you, Jess, so don’t feel sorry for yourself – the world owes you nothing. There are plenty of incredible opportunities out there for the taking, if you choose to make it happen.’”
Through this, Smith learnt not to make excuses based on her appearance. Rather than let her disability pull her down, she decided to use her body to prove that she wasn’t defined by it. That’s when she began getting involved in sport.
At first, she played football with her brothers, but soon found swimming to be her passion. Smith came to realise she was exceptionally good at it when she was only 10 years old and went on to compete in a race at school; she beat the able-bodied swimmers to come in first. “In that moment, I experienced something I’d never felt before – exhilaration, pride, joy – because, for the first time in my young life, I felt as though I was being noticed for what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t. It was the best feeling ever.”
She swam as much as she could. Yet, she eventually came to realise that, although her body could handle the tough training, it was taking a toll on her mental state. “I wasn’t mature enough to handle the enormity of what was expected of me,” she admits. “Other athletes seemed to deal with it with a shrug of the shoulders. They were so used to being ignored. It didn’t bother them but it bothered me.
“When I compared myself to my fellow able-bodied training mates, I didn’t understand why they were being treated differently. Didn’t I deserve the same recognition as them? After all, I was doing the same gruelling training. It came across as though I was extrinsically motivated, but I just wanted to be seen.”
When I compared myself to my fellow able-bodied training mates, I didn’t understand why they were being treated differently. Didn’t I deserve the same recognition as them? After all, I was doing the same gruelling training.
Doctors told Smith she had an eating disorder and depression at age 15, but she kept on swimming and reached the pinnacle of her athletic career: representing Australia at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. What was supposed to be a big moment for her, however, ended up as something else, as the pressure to succeed became too much. Even though she was expected to win medals in three individual events, she ended up being the only member of the Australian national swimming team to not make a final.
“My career was over,” she says. “I returned to Australia and was admitted to a rehab facility; I’d hit my rock bottom.”
What may seem like a low point in her life ended up leading to a cathartic healing process. “It was hard, but – here’s the cliche part of my story – it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I gave myself permission to heal, permission to say ‘I’m not OK’. And the recovery process began.”
After Athens, she received calls to speak at events and share her Paralympic story. Back then, she’d only tell half the details, what she thought the audience wanted to hear, but then she realised her talks weren’t engaging and she was coming across as disingenuous. “It felt false and awkward,” she admits. “So, one day, I decided to tell the real story, the full story.”
It’s her truth-telling that makes Smith so compelling to see live. She speaks eloquently, without faltering, and her talks are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. It’s why Smith was also awarded one of her country’s highest honours – the Medal of the Order of Australia – earlier this year, for the various roles she plays in her community and her dedication to sport.
Now, having moved with her husband and two young children to Dubai, she also hopes to start more conversations about tolerance. Using her experience, she aims to help educate children about diversity and body image. She has also written a children’s book based on her own life, called Little Miss Jessica Goes to School. It focuses on a young girl with one arm and the different challenges she faces on her first day. She’s currently working on a follow-up.
“Diversity and disability or people of determination are people we are all going to come into contact with,” she says. “It’s important we learn how to be understanding and accepting of all abilities at a young age.” As the Year of Tolerance comes to an end, she hopes to continue the conversation. “If we’re really wanting to talk about tolerance, it can’t just stop after this year,” she says.
Smith hasn’t been in the Emirates long, but she has noticed some stares. At first this made her feel a bit uncomfortable, but now she realises it’s a good opportunity to show people she’s more than just someone without an arm.
“I hope by me just being myself, I can show people I’m quite capable. And then that’s a wonderful thing for people to realise,” she says. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me, you don’t have to pander to me, you don’t have to do things for me. I can do it myself if you give me the opportunity to.”
Updated: December 26, 2019 08:14 PM