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Jessica Smith while pregnant with her second child as Cosmopolitan's Woman of the Year (Game Changer).  Photos: Contributed

CLARENCE+: Jessica's journey to help herself and others

It should have been one of the highlights of her life. Jessica Smith stood in front of her adopted home town of Grafton and lit the Olympic cauldron to rapturous applause and cheers. With her smile beaming out on the front page of the paper, the young girl born without an arm and who overcame horrific burns suffered as a baby, was one of the most promising swimmers in the country and everything seemed rosy.

But underneath the smile, Jessica was suffering from depression, struggling with self-confidence after failing to qualify for the 2000 Paralympics.

At 15 years of age, she felt like a failure.

The talented athlete was in the middle of a downward spiral which would see her struggle to achieve her lifelong dream, battle eating disorders and finally admitted to rehabilitation. She felt like an imposter to her friends, family and supporters.

Almost two decades have passed since those darker days. Living in Melbourne, Jessica is married with two young children and is now regarded as one of the country's foremost advocates and speakers about body image and diversity. With her quiet, self-confidence, Jessica said she had come out of the other side and never been more content in her life than right now.

Jessica never had a left arm until she was 18 months old, when she was fitted with a prosthetic. It wasn't an easy start for the toddler, knocking over a kettle full of boiling water and receiving third-degree burns to 16 per cent of her body. The scars are a reminder she still bears today.

The Smith family moved to Grafton from Sydney when Jessica was eight, her father Ray, at the then Grafton City Council.

"Growing up, I knew I looked different. And that wasn't a nice feeling," Jessica said.

"Looking and feeling different certainly had a negative impact on how I saw myself. I struggled with severe low self-esteem issues because my body didn't fit within the societal norms, which led to me believing that if I could look perfect in every other way, maybe then I'd be accepted. Maybe then I'd be happy."

At age 10, Jessica began swimming, the 50-metre freestyle event at her school's carnival, her debut race. She touched the wall first, ahead of her two-handed opponents. Jessica recalls how good it felt, and with that, a new purpose had arrived.

Competing against other athletes with disabilities, Jessica excelled at state and national competitions. When she was swimming, she felt like she belonged. The pool and tracking that straight black line, was her place.

Jessica spent every moment she could at the pool. The wins kept coming, but so did the pressure. The weight of her own expectations alongside normal teenage worries started to take their toll and she struggled with what she was seeing in the mirror.

In the search for "perfection" Jessica began skipping meals and dieting, firstly under the guise of her strict training regime. It became obsessive, sowing the seeds that would manifest later as eating disorders.

Jessica trained hard to qualify for the much-hyped 2000 Sydney Paralympics, but fell just short of the mark. It was a body blow to her confidence and self-esteem, and for the 15-year-old, not an easy thing to come to terms with.

"I felt mortified and felt like such a failure, I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and not making the team simply reaffirmed my thoughts that I simply wasn't good enough," she said.

"I had told myself that if I could make the team that at such a young age, I would've proved to everyone that I didn't need to be limited by my disability, and I wouldn't just be that disabled girl in town."

Still there was a beacon of hope for Jessica, literally in her case. She was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, a gesture of respect the City of Grafton bestowed upon her thanks to the amazing achievements in swimming she made at such a young age.

"I often forget about that time, it was a very bitter-sweet experience. It was truly amazing, but at the same time I was so depressed," she said.

"It was very difficult for me to be excited about the Olympics and Paralympics when I'd failed to make the team.

"I remember thinking I'm still not good enough. Looking back now, I feel really sad that I wasn't able to fully embrace the experience, and so many others like it at the time.

"What should have been one of the proudest moments of my life, is just a blur."

Despite the torment Jessica decided to double down on her Olympic dream, moving her swimming career up into top gear by leaving Grafton and heading to a bigger centre.

She finished high school and moved to Wollongong, training under an Olympic coach and studying at university under a scholarship.

"I decided 'this is it'. I had to use the failure of not making the team for Sydney as motivation to make the team for Athens. So I did everything I could to ensure that my life was set up to support this dream," she said.

"I worked so incredibly hard to make the team, and I did. But again because I wasn't addressing my underlying body image issues, and feeling comfortable away from swimming, things were slowly starting to fall out from underneath me.

"I was still restricting food to manage my weight, making myself sick, and the guilt and shame I felt from that was suffocating. I was constantly telling myself 'I'll stop when I get to a certain weight', but that never happened. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of self destruction."

 

Jessica poses as an ambassador for Fearless Activewear label.
Jessica poses as an ambassador for Fearless Activewear label.

By time the 2004 Olympics came around, Jessica was lying to everyone about her diet, and her body was so short on the nutrients and energy, her dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

"To be honest it's all a blur, which is just so miserable and hard for me to admit. My whole family flew over to Athens to watch me compete, and I didn't swim as fast as expected," she said.

"It was hugely deflating and once again I felt like a complete failure, especially to my family."

To ram it home, Jessica was the only member of the swim team not to make a final, and said returning to Australia with that in the back of her mind was really hard.

"I'd dedicated my entire life to something... but my dreams and hopes were shattered. My story doesn't have the Hollywood ending with the gold medal," she said.

"I think most people expect me to say I went on to win gold and left all that darkness behind me, but that's not my story. The life I was living behind closed doors led me to not succeeding," she said.

"The amount of hatred and blame, it just that consumed me. But all that aside, it soon became apparent that I was very very sick."

During all the shame, depression and illness, Jessica pushed everyone away until she hit rock bottom in 2005 and when there was nothing else left, went into rehab.

"It was very blunt. I remember thinking at first 'Oh they'll just give you some medication, and it will be an overnight cure', but after two very intense years of back and forth treatment, I soon realised that no one was going to help me except myself," she said.

"I had to make amends with so many people, most importantly my parents and brothers who had all been there and see the very worst side to me. It took a long time to regain their trust after I had broken it time and time again."

With her rehabilitation came saying goodbye to the world of swimming. She had to make a clean break to start a new life and build new relationships.

"I had to completely cut ties to my old life so I could move forward and take positive steps in my recovery. My new dreams and aspirations were to be healthy, happy and content."

After the Paralympics and battling her demons Jessica was given the opportunity to share her experiences as a motivational speaker, and as she began to confront her past and share it with strangers, her confidence grew.

"It was daunting, very daunting. Putting myself out there on a platform to share my story made me feel very vulnerable, but also empowered," she said.

"I kept finding myself wanting to talk more and more about the eating disorder rather than the swimming - and I felt the audiences wanted to hear that side too. People knew about the swimming but they were unaware of the other struggles. I think when we are vulnerable it helps others connect and soon I was being asked to share that aspect of my life more and more.

"I knew I had a responsibility to give back, and I knew there were a lot of people struggling to feel empowered to use their own voices to talk about body image and eating disorder issues. So I wanted to be that voice.

"I was nervous, of course. But the feedback I received from young women and men, from parents and teachers - all saying that my story had in some way helped them, well that was enough motivation for me to want to make this a career."

 

jessica Smith
jessica Smith

Jessica describes her message as one of diversity, one which doesn't focus on body image as being just weight and shape, but a diversity encompassing race, religion, sexuality, gender, and mental health, her message evolving as she spoke more of her own experience.

With a renewed focus on her life, Jessica met Iranian-born Hamid five years ago through mutual friends, the pair later marrying in Perth where they started a family which now includes daughter Ayla, 2, and son Reza.

"Having two young babies is the most challenging life experience, but not necessarily because of my disability or what people perceive it to be. Being a mum is hard both emotionally and physically. But again, thanks to my life experiences I like to think I have built up some resilience and I now just have to approach things differently," she said.

"I always look at the positives in that, and think there's absolutely nothing I can't do, I just do it my way.

"Motherhood is without a doubt, my greatest achievement."

 

Jessica Smith
Jessica Smith

Despite the challenges of parenting, Jessica still found time to be concerned about her personal messages and whether they were getting through to those who really needed to hear them.

"I kept wondering if I was winning the war, I'm saying the same thing but negative body image is still destroying our society. I decided that I wanted target a younger audience and look at ways I could prevent body image issues from arising," she said.

"I remember thinking there were no children's book about this, and it would be a fantastic way to educate young people."

She wrote Little Miss Jessica Goes to School, a story based on a girl with a disability and her friends who realise they are all different but it's the differences that make you who you are.

Without the support of mainstream publishers (she was told her idea was too unique), she self-published and promptly ran out of copies of the first run.

Jessica said the past few years have been dedicated to her two children, her work flexible enough for her to travel to speaking engagements and workshops or book readings when invited to.

Her voice is now recognised among the leading in the country on body image and diversity.

She has received numerous awards, including the West Australian Young Australian of the Year, a Pride of Australia medal and last year was named as Cosmopolitan's Woman of the Year under the game changer title.

Looking back Jessica said despite the depression she

battled while living in Grafton she held fond memories of

the Jacaranda City.

"I was born in Sydney, but I always refer to Grafton as my hometown. To me it's where my swimming started and it is a special place for me," she said.

"Regardless of how I felt at the time, it enabled me to grow into the person I am, and the encouragement from the people, the paper, the radio, everyone that supported me, when I was so impressionable and trying to find my self belief, that's something I'll be forever grateful for." +