Social Justice

Paralympian Jessica-Jane Applegate on winning gold and being told she doesn't look disabled enough

Swimming was her salvation, but being accepted with a hidden disability is a constant challenge

Jessica-Jane Applegate

Image: Andy Parsons

Jessica-Jane Applegate is a swimming sensation. Just 16 when she won a gold medal for the UK, she set a Paralympic record for the 200m freestyle in London 2012. Applegate went to the Rio Paralympics four years later, where she won silver and bronze, and Tokyo in 2021, where she won gold in the relay and two bronze medals for freestyle and backstroke. Now, the 27-year-old from Great Yarmouth, who took up swimming at a young age after an autism diagnosis, wants to encourage others to go for their dreams. 

I love winning medals because it makes me feel like all the hard training and work that I’ve put in has paid off. My favourite is gold. I love coming first. 

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My training regime is really busy. I train every day except Sunday. I am in the pool once a day, sometimes twice, and I go to the gym. But I love the routine and I have been doing it for 12 years now.

Jeesica-Jane Applegate with her Paralympic gold medal
Jessica-Jane Applegate with her Paralympic gold. Image: Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News

When I was growing up, I struggled with too much energy and no concentration. I’d tried different things, but they were more group activities and I didn’t communicate well.  

My mum took me to the special needs swim school, where my teachers were really understanding and I didn’t need to interact with anyone else, just swim. 

I love being somewhere I can be me. It is somewhere I fit in, and I love the sound of water. It’s peaceful underwater and I feel safe away from the rest of the world. 

I have a learning disability with multiple health conditions, but you can’t see them. I wish the world was more inclusive for people with unseen disabilities.  

I once had a TikTok video of me swimming during lockdown go viral and people commented under it: “What’s wrong with you? Broken an eyelash?” 

People can’t see my underlying conditions – my heart, my lungs, my bones. My health conditions
are endless. 

Jessica-Jane Applegate at the 2019 World Para Swimming Allianz Championships
Jessica-Jane Applegate in action at the 2019 World Para Swimming Allianz Championships. Image: Andrew Orchard sports photography/Alamy Live News

Sponsorship is so much harder when you have a hidden disability. I’ve literally been told by brands that having a learning disability doesn’t fit their criteria at the time of the Paralympics. They want someone who looks obviously disabled so that people don’t question them or say, “there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them”. 

I had one brand come to me and ask: “Do you know anyone who looks more disabled than you who we could use for a TV advert?” 

I would tell other people with a learning disability that you should not let anyone tell you that you can’t go for your dreams. They are your dreams and, as long as you enjoy it, then you should go for it. 

The Paris 2024 Summer Paralympics take place 28 August to 8 September. 

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