Gold medalist Jessica Long poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 100m Freestyle
Sure, Jessica Long is just like any other 20-year-old who’s come home for a few weeks.
She’s sleeping in late, hanging out with friends, raiding the refrigerator and trading barbs with her brothers and sisters.
“I really am enjoying it all,” she said this week from her hometown of Baltimore. “The one thing — my favorite thing — is waking up without an alarm set. It’s wonderful.”
But of course, Long is no typical 20-something home between college sessions.
She has (literally) a basket full of Paralympic medals in her parents’ basement, she just added eight more (including five gold) from the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and last week, she stopped off at the White House to say hello to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and to hang out with scores of other Paralympic and Olympic athletes.
Then, on Monday, she learned the U.S. Olympic Committee had selected her as its Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year for 2011-12. She also was Paralympian of the Year in 2006.
“It means a lot,” Long said. “It’s such an honor, and, you know, I truly just love what I do. I hope kids with or without a disability look at me as a good role model and want to get out and do what I’m doing and get involved in sports and everything.”
With her feats in London, Long’s Paralympic resume now includes 17 total medals over three Games, from Athens in 2004 (when she won three golds at the age of 12) to Beijing and London. She won both the 100- and 400-meter freestyle races in London for the third straight Games – while lowering her world records in both.
She was named Swimming World Magazine’s Disabled Swimmer of the Year last year and this year she won her second ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete with a Disability.
Long has become one of the best-known Paralympic athletes in the United States. She’s a model, she’s done TV commercials and she’s been on magazine covers. Part of her popularity is based on her swimming success, of course, but also she has become well known for her background. She was adopted from Siberia as a baby and had portions of her lower legs amputated because she was born without bones in her lower legs and feet.
Yet she isn’t about to move on to something else and hang up her swimming goggles. She’s aiming for Rio in 2016.
“So many people ask me what it’s like to stand up on the podium and how do you feel,” she said. “And it’s not a feeling I can really describe easily. But it’s something I know I want to do again. I want to be up there again.”
Four years ago in Beijing, Long won four gold medals, a silver and a bronze, but she said she didn’t go into London with any publicly announced goals.
“My coach and I knew what goals I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t really tell anyone my goals or anything,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself. Of course I always want to do well, but kind of whatever happens, happened, and I would have been happy. I’m very happy with my performance, coming home with the eight medals.”
Also, the London experience was “phenomenal,” she said, because of the record crowds and attention from the media in the United Kingdom. It’s a level of attention she hopes the Paralympic Games will receive in the United States.
Though she’s seen Paralympians’ achievements get more headlines since the 2004 Games, she believes the American media needs to focus more on the Paralympic Games.
“I just think it’s so great because so many people are inspired by the Paralympics,” she said.
Now that she’s back home, she’s not quite sure how the next four years will unfold.
She knows she’ll be training for Rio — “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stay away from the pool,” she said, laughing — but she’s not quite sure where she’ll be swimming those laps.
Over the next six weeks she will be weighing whether to move back to Colorado Springs and the Olympic Training Center, where she trained leading up to London, or to stay in Baltimore and start college.
“It’s really hard,” she said. “I love my family — I’m one of six kids — and my sister-in-law’s having a baby in the next couple of weeks, so I really want to be home for all of that. But it’s really hard because I love Colorado.”
Right now, all the hardware she’s collected — the medals, the national awards — isn’t displayed in a prominent place in her parents’ house. She’s enjoying showing off the London medals to friends and family, of course, but eventually the medals make their way into “the basket.”
“I’ve never been one to just hang them everywhere,” Long said. “I’m always really proud (of them). I have a medal from Athens at a museum, and a couple of awards at sports museums, but I think one day, when I get older, I’ll have a room for all of my medals and trophies and stuff. Right now my medals are just down in the basement.”
Chances are, though, the basket will fill up even more.
Already, she’s excited about swimming in Rio.
“It’s real hard when you’re in the months of training,” she said about swimming and the lead-up to a Paralympic Games. “There’s nothing really fun about swimming. You love it, but it’s not exactly … it’s kind of painful, too.
“But then when you get in the Paralympic Village and you see the crowds and it kind of hits you that all those months of training were for this, you don’t regret anything. You don’t regret the pain you felt, you know, two weeks ago in practice. It really was all for something.
“That’s what I love, and I can’t wait for that feeling again in Rio, of seeing the crowd going crazy and standing up on that podium. There’s nothing like winning a Paralympic gold medal. It’s really awesome to win other gold medals at swim meets, but nothing compares to that Paralympic gold medal.”