- Written by Giulia Frigo and Ben Croucher
Jessie experienced a high-level of swimming at an early age, but found that her passions lay elsewhere. Entering into higher education gave Jessie a broad range of experiences that has led her on a path to support sportspeople with developing themselves in preparation for a life outside of sport.
After winning national swimming medals and breaking records with the North Dutch Talent Team, Jessie Smeding has taken on an ambitious career path.
But aged 17, Jessie felt she had to choose between her education and her sporting career. She has recently diverted her passion into a new professional challenge, travelling through four different continents in the last few years. Having experienced the ups and downs of both worlds, she has some wise messages for the younger generations of aspiring, high-performing athletes.
Jessie Smeding grew up in Oxfordshire where she began swimming with Wycombe District Swimming Club. Aged 10, she moved to her father’s home country, Holland, giving Jessie and her two sisters the chance to learn Dutch and experience the Dutch culture.
Her life in the Netherlands began with a challenge, when her parents sent her to a typical Dutch school, where English wasn’t spoken. Ironically, she describes it as ‘a sink-or-swim situation.’
Her swimming career took off when she joined the local club and realised her potential. As a result, she was selected for the Orca Regional Talent Team (ORT). At 15 she swam record times with the North Dutch Talent Team.She had to make daily sacrifices, just like any high-performing athlete, combining education with up to 24 hours-a-week training. Jessie’s focus was on swimming. However, confidence didn’t always come from within.
At the time, swimmers were allowed to wear a specially designed swimsuit that aided buoyancy, which, whilst adding physical benefits, is something Jessie described as ‘more a mental thing.’ When the suit was banned soon after she started competing in it, Jessie gradually lost confidence and through adolescence her priorities shifted. She was only 17 when she decided that there was more to life than swimming. That’s when her transition began.
Little by little, with the support of her family, she began to enjoy a different way of life, away from the pressures of the pool but with question always in her mind, ‘who am I now?’ Jessie experienced a loss of identity, as for so long she felt she was 'Jessie the swimmer.’
She said: “It’s not about the elite athletes that win medals, they’ll get the support because they’re recognized.”
It's about numbers 6, 7 and 8 who are slipping through, but they trained and sacrificed just as much, they've prioritised their sport to the same extent."
To understand more about herself, she joined her neighbours on a trip to the Gambia, setting off with luggage full of sports equipment. In just four weeks she entertained a whole community with improvised sports events and began to see the future with different eyes.“Sport is so much more than just competing,” she added. Some balls and a few hula hoops appeared to be all it took to spread joy, fun and hope.
On returning home, she felt like a new Jessie. A setback in failing exams actually ended up being a great opportunity.
"That was a blessing in disguise. I thought I wanted to be a PE teacher, because, as an ex-athlete, I thought that’s what I’d be good at”.
"During that time, I found out that there are more career paths a sporty person can take.”
With a passion in sport, she started an undergraduate degree in International Sport Management and Business in Amsterdam. During her first year she travelled to Vietnam, collaborating with the United Nations to help organise events and set-up a swimming program for the local community at the International School.
The following year she ventured to the United States for her studies, and explored marketing as a potential career, studying in Philadelphia, home to five of the top men’s college basketball teams.
She said: “I knew that to be able to actually understand [college] sport, I had to understand how it worked in the US."
After a thrilling college experience, her second internship before graduating took her to the Middle East, at Playsight, a sport and technology company in Israel. The company had just come out of the start-up phase and was about to approach the Australian market.
“I’d always wanted to go to Australia, so I asked if I could join the team there.”
Jessie began work at PlaySight Australia as part of the marketing team and found herself leading a nationwide marketing strategy. Jessie ended up working there longer than planned and launched her own campaign, Playsight for Education. “The campaign was successful,” she proudly stated. “I managed to sign on schools but beyond the sales I felt I was making a difference."
I got someone to believe in my idea and I was actually able to help someone else. It was the highlight of my time there.”
After returning to the UK, Jessie started a Masters degree in Social Science Research at Loughborough University. She is currently writing her dissertation on the positive experiences and outcomes of elite athletes’retirement and has supported Switch the Play Foundation as Athlete Engagement Intern.