By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Jessica Long was one of the brightest stars of the 2011 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships in Canada, winning nine gold medals (including seven individual) and setting four world records. After taking a lot of learning experiences from Beijing, the one-time Russian orphan – whose trek to America is as inspiring as her work in the pool – talks about her focus for 2012, and what she wants to do most in London.
1. Where are you now?
Jessica: I am currently in Colorado Springs training for London. I moved back here to the Olympic Training Center a year ago in September.
2. How is swimming going?
Jessica: Swimming is going really well. I have been super busy. I just got back from the ESPN sports summit. And we had our coach’s birthday; Dave Denniston turned 33, so in honor of turning 33, we did thirty-three 100s. We had Princess (laughs) Party Plates and everything.
3. How were Pan Pacs?
Jessica: I went to Pan Pacs in Edmonton, Canada. I ended up blessed. I won nine gold medals and set four world records. I’m still on a high from that. And that’s where I need to be a year out.
4. One of your first big meets with Dave as your coach – a pretty good “start,” so to speak?
Jessica: I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Canada. I knew it was one of the first times really being tapered and being coached by Dave … having him as my coach and me being healthy and everything. I thought I could put up some good times but I was pretty shocked that it went that well.
5. Did you have indications leading up to it that you’d have a record-setting meet?
Jessica: Not in a lot of ways. We had a training camp prior to that in California and I did not feel great. I was not feeling like myself. I felt good in the water but not where I normally feel completely right. Then when I got to Canada, I swam in my first race, and I realized, “My body is ready, taper is good.”
6. What records are you most excited about from Canada?
Jessica: The 100 free and 400 free are the ones I am excited about because I haven’t held those records in years. I hope to keep them.
7. What was the illness you had earlier this year?
Jessica: I am fine now. I’m totally good now. Back in April I was having some chest problems which prevented me from swimming as much as I would like. I ended up going home, and we got some answers, which was good. It was hard training when I wasn’t 100 percent. I am good now.
8. What happened?
Jessica: It was costochondritis; it’s a blood flow issue that can make you more tired. After having that and the setbacks, what happened in Edmonton meant that much more for me. My goal is to be healthy for London.
9. Was it a hard adaptation, getting used to a new coach?
Jessica: Never once. I absolutely love Dave-o. Every day I go into practice and I love swimming for him. He’s my coach. What’s so awesome is he was my teammate in Beijing, so I had that level of respect for him from being teammates. I couldn’t imagine having another coach now. I don’t think we as athletes here realize how amazing coach Dave-o is and how well he knows his stuff. There is always a method (laughs) to his madness. That quote goes through my head a lot training (laughs) for him. He is never boring.
10. NBAC has produced quite a crowd of talent in you, Katie Hoff, Michael Phelps, and tons of others recently, hasn’t it?
Jessica: Yes, we had a really good group. We had Phelps and Katie, which was just amazing at that time. I feel like Baltimore became a “swimming state” (laughs) at that point! When we are back east together, it’s awesome to do events with them. Baltimore created a park for all the Olympians, which is a huge honor. Baltimore takes a lot of pride in that, and so do I.
11. Pretty great training at altitude in Colorado Springs – do you feel it when you are gone for a while and come back?
Jessica: Oh yeah! I was recently away for a week with appearances, and I was surprised when I got back to feel winded going up a flight of stairs. But I love that, and that’s one of the reasons I moved out here, to train at altitude. Going just a little off your best time at altitude is awesome. It’s a privilege and an honor for me to be here at the training center.
12. You really come off great in appearances and you look like you enjoy it – do you?
Jessica: Thank you for the compliment first of all, and yes, I love it! The two events I just did were at Nickelodeon for their World Wide Day of Play in Washington D.C., where I got to sign autographs – which I love doing – and at the ESPN Summit in Tucson, Ariz. The summit was amazing because here I am with these amazing athletes like Michelle Kwan, and they treated me with so much respect and as a professional athlete, too.
13. Pretty neat to have some sponsorship now?
Jessica: It is just awesome. Just signed with Coca-Cola, which is a huge honor for me. I’ve also been signed with Visa for about a year now. I want to get my name out there and tell my story. I don’t want to ever come across as cocky, but I do want to take pride in my accomplishments and use those to help others.
14. What an amazing, unpredictable path your life has been – and to end up a swimming star – incredible, isn’t it?
Jessica: I truly believe this is part of God’s plan for my life. I believe I was born to swim, regardless of whether I had legs or not – and of course I don’t as it turned out. Before swimming, I never understood why I didn’t have legs – you can’t explain that to a kid who is 4 or 6 years old. But then I started swimming, and it all made sense. Swimming has showed me that if I am determined that I can do anything.
15. It’s ironic because I’ve talked to you so many times now and I don’t think the terms disabled or handicapped have ever come up, have they?
Jessica: I can’t remember those being mentioned either, which is fine, because I don’t see myself as being disabled. I don’t think I’ll ever see myself that way. It’s just something I have to deal with, just like everyone else has something in their life they have to overcome or deal with on a daily basis; it’s not a handicap, it’s what makes us unique, makes us who we are. How we deal with it, how we get passed it, how we make ourselves and those around us better, that’s how we are defined.
16. I see all these pictures of you in UGGs and jeans, and it’s hysterical trying to explain to my friends how you have overcome this – you enjoy the photo shoots, don’t you?
Jessica: I love it, and would like to get into more modeling, if the opportunity is there. Listen, I have my legs, and I put them on just like anyone else puts something on. I have running legs for working out, and I have what I call my “sexy legs” when I want to wear high heels – and yes, I do wear high heels! I never thought I’d be able to paint my toenails or wear high heels, but guess what, I can, and I do.
17. How did Beijing go for you?
Jessica: You know, when I was 12 years old and was the underdog, I wasn’t expected to win, and it came out well. Then, in Beijing, I put all this pressure on myself, and it wasn’t fun. I had such high goals, but even though I didn’t reach them all, I had to be proud both for what I did, and the journey to get there. It’s always hard not to reach a goal. So this time, my goal is to have fun in London. But it’s always to do everything in my power – train, yoga, weights, swim – to be properly prepared to be successesful. I don’t plan on losing, in other words. But no matter what, I am going to have fun.
18. Your story about life in a Russian orphanage is incredible – do you speak Russian?
Jessica: I actually don’t know as much as I should. I love Russia, and part of me will always be a Siberian girl. Eventually, I would like to go back and see the orphanage I was adopted from. We have not yet had a swim meet in Russia, but it’d be really neat to go back there and see it. Want to hear something funny? Always when I was growing up, I thought I was a Russian Princess – Anastasia was my movie. She was in an orphanage, and she ended up being this beautiful Russian princess. I listened to that soundtrack all the time, and loved that movie.
19. Watching you sign autographs this summer, it looked like you enjoyed it as much as the kids you were signing for – is that true?
Jessica: Yes, and that is so exciting! They all have their own stories, just like I do. I feel so fortunate that they are thrilled to meet me. That’s pretty cool.
20. This is a vague question so take the focus as narrow as you would like, but what does swimming mean to you?
Jessica: Goodness, oh goodness, where do I start? Swimming is, in a lot of ways, my life. Swimming is tied to my identity, to who I am. One of the ways I dealt with things growing up is that I thought that I (laughs) was a mermaid! In the pool, I can be 100 percent of who I am. Swimming made me disciplined and determined. People have touched my life, and I have been able to touch others’ lives, through swimming. Swimming has helped me meet the most amazing people in our country, and around the world. I can’t imagine my life without swimming, I just simply cannot. You know, we sometimes, especially after hard workouts, talk about how when we retire we’re all going to eat just junk food and everything, but then I think about it, and I realize this: I will never stay away from the pool. I love swimming. And I still think that I’m a mermaid!