Come August—everything going to plan— Jessicah Schipper will fulfil a dream that has been in the making for at least 10 years. “It's pretty much every sporting person's dream to win an Olympic medal,” she reflects.
“We're in hard training again now.
Our trials are in March and I'm looking forward to them—and then to the Olympics.” It isn't that 21-year-old Jessicah has failed so far in her swimming career. She won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, as a member of Australia's 4 x 100 medley relay team. She also has three Commonwealth Games gold medals, four World Championship titles and a world record to her name.
But Jessicah believes improving on her individual fourth placing in Athens, aiming for that Olympic gold medal, will be something special.
“It's my major goal,” she says.
“I really want to do better, to better myself from 2004, so it's really important to me.
“Representing Australia is just amazing. Everyone loves Australia and we're known everywhere for our sporting achievements, so it's great to be a part of the Australian team.” According to Jessicah, being part of the Australian swimming team—as she has been regularly since 2003—is like having another family. Travelling with the team is a major highlight. “We always have so much fun,” she says.
“We do a lot of team building activities, and we all know each other really well and help each other keep going.” It is obvious Jessicah is a major contributor to the spirit within the team.
As well as winning the “People's Choice Award” at last year's Swimming Australia awards, she was voted “Swimmer's Swimmer” by her team mates.
But that doesn't mean there aren't rivalries within the team. Rather, this is a factor in Australia's swimming success, says Jessicah. “I think that, because we have the best in the world, we are able to compete with each other more regularly,” she suggests. “But I think it is also because we all love to do it.”
Jessicah's connection with the pool began at a young age.
“When I was born, I was diagnosed with chronic asthma,” she explains. “My doctor suggested taking up swimming to strengthen my lungs and I've been doing that since before I could walk.
“When I was 11, my coach, Ken Wood, came up to me and my parents. He saw me at a little meet I was swimming at. He said that I had a lot of potential and asked me to join his club.
It's 10 years now that I've just been training with him and taking it more seriously.
“Swimming has always been a part of my life,” says Jessicah, who still trains with Ken Wood in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, Queensland.
“It's always been something I've done and everything else has fitted around swimming.” The highlight of that 10 years came on August 17, 2006, when she set a world record for the women's 200-metre butterfly. “It's too crazy to think about it,” reflects Jessicah, still in awe of her achievement 18 months after the event. “That was a goal that I'd been going for for a couple of years—to get that was just great.” Of course, any such career has it challenges and disappointments. Jessicah was denied a world championship in 2005 under controversial circumstances but is philosophical about such setbacks. “You can't win all the time,” she comments. “I guess you learn from those swims and disappointments, and they help you grow as a person and a competitor.” Now a seasoned competitor, Jessicah has a simple formula for race preparation that involves as much mental preparedness as physical. “A solid meal the night before—lots of carbohydrates— and a good night's sleep,” she says, working through her checklist. “For me personally, a little breakfast in the morning, then get to the pool, have a warm up and get in a few fast swims.
“Try to stay relaxed and you should be alright. If you don't stay relaxed before a race, you can completely destroy yourself. You just have to work out what's best for you.”
Away from the pool, Jessicah relaxes by spending time with her three dogs and her favourite land-based activity— reading. “I have a massive book collection and I'm always reading something,” she says.
She is also involved with a variety of charity and community activities, including being an ambassador for the Down Syndrome “Down Under” Swimming Organisation.
But this year also sees Jessicah stepping into the role of national ambassador for the Weet-Bix Kids TRY-athlon series in Australia, which is hoping to attract 40,000 participants in Australia and New Zealand over the next couple of months.
“I think it's a great thing to get kids involved in sport,” she explains. “To get them out of the house and doing stuff is always great.
“All around the world Australians are known for our sporting achievements.
These events are an opportunity for kids to grab their runners, bikes and swimmers, take part and give it their best,” she says.
Jessicah believes the events are a great way to inspire kids to get up and move in a friendly and encouraging environment where the emphasis is on enjoying exercise. “No placings or times are recorded, and everyone who enters gets a medal,” she explains. “More than 60,000 Aussie kids have participated in the event since it started 10 years ago. It's a brilliant way to get active with your mates and, best of all, it's great fun.” Asked about being a role model to young people such as those who will be participating in the TRY-athlons, Jessicah is enthusiastic. “I think it's really cool to just be involved in stuff like that and to hear the words ‘role model' is always pretty exciting,” she says.
“Being one of five kids—having three brothers and a sister, and always having kids around playing—we were always all involved in sport. It's great to know that other kids are doing it and having fun doing it themselves.” It's the same enthusiasm that continues to mark and motivate her swimming as she looks toward her personal challenges for this year. “I just love swimming,” she says. “As I said, I've been doing it since forever and it's always been a part of my life. I've loved it and love being in the water. So I just want to get better in myself—and I'm having fun doing it.”