‘Struggles’ won’t beat Paralympian Jessica-Jane Applegate as she faces up to her biggest challenge
PUBLISHED: 08:30 23 April 2016
Jessica-Jane Applegate has opened her heart about the daily battles she has to overcome in her quest for more global glory.
What is Aspergers?
Asperger syndrome (AS) is a form of autism.
It is a lifelong disability which affects the way a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to others.
Autism is often described as a ‘spectrum disorder’ because the condition affects people in many different ways and to varying degrees.
AS is mostly a hidden disability. This means that you can’t tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance but it can cause them a high level of anxiety and confusion.
Those with the condition have difficulties in three main areas. They are: social communication, social interaction and social imagination.
The 19-year-old shot to international prominence four years ago when she became the first British S14 swimmer to stand at the top of the Paralympic podium at London 2012. But as she eyes another dream Games appearance later this year, Applegate admits it remains as challenging as ever to conquer the learning difficulties she was diagnosed with at four years old while she’s trying to gear up for the Rio qualifiers, which begin in Glasgow today.
“I really struggle with day-to-day things like understanding sets, reading sessions, reading a pace clock and remembering technique,” said the Norfolk teenager, who was also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome while at secondary school.
“I forget what I’d learned to do the day before and I have poor concentration. I forget equipment or misplace it and cannot always communicate well. This is why I am in the classification of S14 (swimmer with an intellectual impairment) and race against the other S14s. We all have the same problems.
“I get confused and frustrated easily but it works both ways. Sometimes I’m frustrated because I can’t explain what I mean and other times I have no idea what people are trying to tell me. This affects me on a daily basis so I am very lucky to have such a supportive team around me.”
Burgh Castle-based Applegate, raised in Gorleston near Great Yarmouth, is well on her way to becoming one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians. She has already won nine gold medals at international and national level and holds a number of world records.
Those achievements haven’t come without huge sacrifices though thanks to a gruelling training regime and the tireless support of her City of Norwich team-mates and, especially, her mum Dawn and coach Alex Pinniger.
Applegate added: “Me and my mum are really close. We do loads of stuff together and she does so much for me. From all the driving, my website, my bookings, my paperwork, my race entries, everything really. I love her, my dogs and my geckos so much.
“Most of the time Alex and I get on brilliantly. He always says he doesn’t get stressed but he does – he just won’t admit it, ha! Sometimes we argue but we always talk things through. He is very understanding.”
A day of the life in Jessica-Jane
4-5.30am – Get up and travel to Norwich from Burgh Castle, near Great Yarmouth
5.30-7.30am - Training in the pool
7.45-8.45am - Training in the gym
9am-noon – Eat breakfast in car, travel home, sort kits
Noon-3.45pm – Eat lunch, nap and then travel back to Norwich
4.30-5pm – ‘Land’ training
5-7.30pm – Training in the pool
8.30pm onwards – Eat evening meal in car, travel home and, eventually, bed
Groundhog Day is a welcome part of Jessica’s bid for glory
Sleep, swim, eat, repeat.
No, they’re not alternative words to a popular 2014 dance track.
It’s the soundtrack to Jessica-Jane Applegate’s life. Because that is what she does for more than 300 days a year.
Groundhog Day it may be, but there’s much more behind that punishing daily grind than making the 19-year-old one of the world’s finest competitors in the pool.
The repetition also enables Applegate to overcome the learning difficulties which force her, among many things, to forget what she’s learned the day before.
The London 2012 Paralympic gold medallist said: “I was diagnosed with Aspergers as a teenager due to my communication problems, obsessive behaviour and various other traits but this, if anything, has helped me because I have to practice and practice until I get things right.
Paralympic trials (Glasgow)
Today – S14 100m breaststroke
Tomorrow – S14 100m backstroke
Tuesday – S14 200m freestyle
Wednesday – S14 200m individual medley
IPC European Championships (Portugal)
Sunday, May 1 – S14 200m freestyle
Tuesday, May 3 – S14 100m backstroke
Wednesday, May 4 – S14 100m breaststroke
Friday, May 6 – S14 4x100m freestyle mixed relay
Saturday, May 7 – S14 200m individual medley
“My whole pool training and gym schedule is a set routine which then leads to everything else being a routine.
“In competition they are always run the same whether it’s able-bodied or Para so that’s just another routine.
“I have a race plan which my coach (Alex Pinniger) will go through over and over again until I remember it and I also have some prompt cards made up just to remind me of what I should be doing.”
While it might be a daily struggle, Applegate is clearly winning the battle.
The S14 200m freestyle success at her home Games, aged 16, may have been the crowning glory but being awarded an MBE for her services to swimming in 2013 as well as winning world titles that year and in 2015 can’t have been far behind.
On top of her hidden disability, Norfolk’s golden girl – who lives in Burgh Castle, near Great Yarmouth, but trains at the UEA in Norwich – the former Ormiston Venture Academy pupil has faced several physical problems throughout her young life.
“I was born with several underdevelopments, the main one was a tube in the larynx where I was very sick with breathing problems for several years,” said the inspirational swimmer.
“Another was one of my legs is still quite a bit shorter than the other. It also has a hole in the bone.
How Jessica-Jane’s Rio dream is taking shape
SB14 100m breaststroke
01:18.42 (Rio 2016 qualifying time)
01:24.72 (Jess’ personal best, 2015)
S14 100m backstroke
01:07.08 (Rio QT)
01:06.75 (Jess PB, 2015)
S14 200m freestyle
02:05.61 (Rio QT)
02:05.61 (Jess PB, 2015)
SM14 200m individual medley
02:26.51 (Rio QT)
02:25.78 (Jess PB, 2015)
* 01:18.42 denotes one minute, 18.42 seconds
“I have femoral retroversion (positional deformity) in just one hip so I have really struggled to do the breaststroke technique as it has to be simultaneous.
“And with uneven legs, one hip that turns in when the other doesn’t, restricted movement in my dorsiflex (bending the foot upwards) but hypermobility (large range of movement) in my ankle, it’s been a huge challenge.
“I’m certainly not complaining though. I am super happy that I’ve managed to learn it and this year will be the first time internationally I will have a go at it at May’s European Championships.”
Given everything she’s gone, and is going through, in her bid for further glory in the water you could forgive Applegate a moan. But it’s not in her nature.
She added: “There are hundreds of hidden disabilities. People struggle every day, which makes me very sad, without anyone being aware of what they are going through.
“I am very fortunate to have had a great team to work with me.”
Champion’s improved since London 2012
Being a Paralympic and world champion counts for little when it comes to trying to make September’s Rio Games.
Jessica-Jane Applegate has to go through the same process as every other Para GB hopeful looking to book their place on the plane to Brazil.
The British Para-Swimming International, which starts today in Glasgow, serves as the Paralympic trials for Brit hopefuls. Aplegate will, in essence, have to finish first or second in her events (SB14 100m breaststroke, S14 100m backstroke, S14 200m freestyle and S14 200m individual medley) while equalling or bettering the qualifying times to finally be selected by the Para selection panel.
The Norwich City fan – who among a host of other volunteering activities coaches swimmers at Great Yarmouth – said: “I would love to compete at Rio. I believed I have learned so much from the team I’ve worked with since London 2012 and I have become a more experienced athlete.
“The qualifying times are harder than they have ever been before but I will do my very best to make the team and everyone proud.”
That’s certainly what she did at her home Games four years ago. And it’s exactly what Applegate wants to do in Glasgow and at next month’s IPC (International Paralympic Committee) European Champion- ships in Portugal, which begin on May 1.