By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Even though she’s just 20, Jessica Long has already been to two Paralympic Games and won seven gold medals in her short but extremely successful swimming career.
When she thinks back on her 10 years in the pool, she mostly remembers the many lasting relationships she’s forged and how rewarding and important they’ve become to her.
As she approaches her third Paralympic Trials this summer in Bismarck, N.D. (they were originally scheduled for last weekend but were reschedule for June), Long – a leap year baby who recently celebrated her fifth official birthday – is as eager to reunite with swim friends as she is to make the team destined for London this summer.
“We are such a close group; we’ve all connected, and we love when we get the chance to reunite at meets and catch up,” Long said. “But don’t confuse that with why we all go to Trials. We want to swim at the Paralympic Games.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with Long, hers is a heartwarming story of benevolent love and supreme determination that began in an orphanage in the former Soviet Union.
Born in Serbia in 1992, she was adopted as a baby by a loving couple and brought to the United States. Because of lower leg anomalies – fibular hemimelia or underdevelopment of the fibula – her legs were amputated when she was 18 months old.
She learned to walk with prosthetic legs, but when she’s in the water, her success can be attributed singularly to her own hard work and refusal to be anything outside of extraordinary.
“I took to the water pretty naturally; I loved it right away, and swimming came very easily for me,” Long said. “Swimming allowed me to do something really active without having to wear a prosthetic, and I still love that about the sport.”
Long began swimming in her grandparents’ backyard pool before joining her first competitive club team in 2002.
Two years later, she defied the odds just as she had her entire life to surprisingly make the U.S. Paralympic team when no one – including herself – ever thought she had a realistic shot.
“I went into the meet to use it as a learning experience – I had only been swimming competitively for a couple of years – so I was really surprised to make the team,” said Long, who has been involved with gymnastics, cheerleading, ice skating and rock climbing, among others, along with swimming.
“I figured I’d make the team in 2008 when I had a few more years of experience, but when my dad and I went to the team announcement ceremony, we were both amazed when they called my name. Once that happened, I knew I had to make the most of the opportunity.”
And she did. In Athens, the precocious 12-year-old (youngest member of the team) won three gold medals – two individual and one relay – in the S8 (amputees) class and left as one of the most decorated of the Games.
Four years later, she added six more medals – four gold, a silver and a bronze – at the Paralympic Games in Beijing. In the process, she set three world records, adding to the remarkable 20 world marks she currently holds.
Having accomplished so much while still so young – she won nine gold medals in nine events and set five world records at the 2006 IPC Swimming World Championships at 14 years old – one might think she doesn’t have much else to aspire to. But that’s not the case for Long.
In addition to wanting to go to college, which she put off two years ago to focus on training and improving for the upcoming Trials and Games, she also wants to return to her birth country and look for her birth mother.
“I have her name and know where she lives, so I’m naturally curious to meet her and ask her some questions like why she gave me away, do I have any brothers or sisters, did they have the same birth defect I was born with, etc.,” Long said. “My parents never kept my adoption a secret, and they are my parents, but I think we all need and want to know where we came from.
“When I was younger, I had no desire to know about her, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more interested in knowing about her and what her life must have been like to give me up.”
In the meantime, Long continues training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs (she’s nearing the end of her two-year program there) and said she has seen improvement in her overall attention to swimming.
Her decision to leave her longtime club coach after eight years together proved difficult for her, but ultimately, Long said she knew the outcome of the change was exactly what she needed.
The experience has renewed her passion for the sport and given her a new outlook on the prospects for a longer career in swimming.
“Everything you need as an athlete is here – nutrition, great coaching, swimming at altitude, recovery center (massage, etc.), weight training and swimming in a 50-meter pool instead of a 25-yard pool – and the whole process really does help you become the best that you can be,” Long said. “I needed a change in 2010 to continue to push myself in and out of the water, and this has been a terrific opportunity.
“My first week here, I fell in love with my training teammates, the environment, everything. I also fell in love with swimming again, and I’m excited for Trials and for London to see what I can do next. I want to keep swimming beyond this year, definitely shooting for the 2014 World Championships and 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio (de Janeiro). Beyond that, I’m not sure. I know I want to write a book and do other things, so we’ll see how things go.”