Jessica Long, shown at the start of the women's 50m freestyle - S8 at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, has won nine gold medals in two Games. She hopes to swim nine events at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Aug. 29-Sept. 9.
Jessica Long remembers when she arrived in Colorado Springs and she saw a sign near the U.S. Olympic Training Center which counted down the days until the 2012 Games in London.
“When I first got here, it was around 600 something,” she said. “Now it’s less than 100. For me, it reminds me that each day counts. There’s ‘No, I’ll do it later,’ It’s now.”
The London 2012 Paralympic Games begin in 99 days (the Olympic Games kick off in 66), and Long has been doing little but sleep, eat and swim as she prepares for what could be her third trip to the Paralympic Games. In her two previous trips to the Paralympic Games in 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing, Long amassed nine medals --- seven gold. This time in London, she hopes to swim in nine events (seven individual races and two relays).
Perhaps there was something in the water where she grew up in Baltimore that makes swimmers want to compete in so many grueling swimming races. Michael Phelps, who also hails from Baltimore, has won 16 Olympic swimming medals including eight in Beijing where he eclipsed the record of seven by Mark Spitz.
“I know Michael well and what he did was amazing,” Long said. “I don’t think people realize how exhausting it is.”
Long certainly can attest to the exhaustion factor. But she is doing something even Phelps has not had to do --- she swims at a high level even though she had a bilateral amputation when she was 18 months old. Born in Siberia, Long was adopted from a Russian orphanage by a Baltimore family when she was a little more than a year old. She was diagnosed with fibular hemimelia, leading to her double amputation.
Now 20, she estimates she has undergone about 10 surgeries. Every time she underwent a growth spurt, she had to have surgery. She uses prosthetics to walk.
In Long’s mind, she does not have legs, but that’s no problem.
“I jump in the pool and I think I’m a mermaid,” she said.
Easy for her to say. After all, Long has never done things the easy way.
When she was 12, she was not even expected to make the U.S. team for the Paralympic Games in Athens. She was at the Paralympic Swimming Trials and she and her dad made the trek to hear the announcement of who made the team. The rest of her family was so convinced she wouldn’t make it that they opted to sleep in instead.
“We had to run up to the hotel room to wake them up and tell them,” Long recalled.
She had trouble processing the magnitude of it all herself.
“I got all of these Team USA clothes and I don’t even think I knew what I was doing,” Long said.
Little did she or anyone else know, she knew full well. She said many people were preparing her to gain experience in Athens for the following Paralympics in Beijing but in her own mind, she was already thinking about winning.
“I told myself I want to win a gold medal,” Long said.
Her first race, however, she finished fifth. But in the 100 free, she was racing neck and neck with Israel’s Keren Or Leybovitch, who held world and Paralympic medals entering the race. Toward the end of the race, Long told herself, “I didn’t come here to finish second,” and she held true to those words by edging Leybovitch and finishing in 1:09.67 and to claim her first Paralympic gold medal. She won the 400 free and a relay gold as well.
Soon, reporters were calling and the expectations were raised for her when she arrived in Beijing. She set a goal of winning seven gold medals and admitted she put too much pressure on herself. She didn’t win seven golds, but earned four gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
One change she is considering leading up to London is using a wheelchair to get around while she is at the Paralympic Games. Typically, she only uses a wheelchair following surgery, but she discovered that she wore herself down in Beijing trying to walk too much. She received a new pair of prosthetics this year mainly because her old ones resulted in back problems. The new prosthetics are a huge improvement but Long might still use a wheelchair to get around.
The U.S. Paralympics Swimming Trials are set for June 14-16 in Bismarck, N.D., and that’s when Long will find out if she qualifies for London.
Her schedule will be all business until then. Living in the Olympic Training Center, she is surrounded by athletes who are preparing for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had even been rooming with another top Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann for a while. So thoughts of London are always on her mind.
Come June 4, she won’t be able to escape London even if she leaves the Olympic Training Center to do some grocery shopping. That’s because her face will be among those U.S. athletes featured on Coca-Cola packaging and advertising.
“I’m so excited,” Long said. “I don’t think it will hit me until I see it, though.”
Coca-Cola is excited about Long, too. She will join Olympic gold medalist gymnast Shawn Johnson, Olympic champion wrestler Henry Cejudo, women’s boxer Marlen Esparza, tennis player John Isner, women’s soccer player Alex Morgan, Olympic bronze medalist men’s hurdler David Oliver and diver David Boudia as part of Coca-Cola’s “Eight Pack” of athletes whose images will be used as part of the company’s advertising leading up to London. Long is only the second Paralympian to partner with Coke’s Olympic advertising campaign. Ralph Green, an alpine skier, was chosen in 2006.
“Coca-Cola strives to partner with athletes like Jessica Long, who are inspirational leaders both on and off the field of play,” said Dina Gerson, director of Olympic marketing for Coca-Cola in North America. “Gold medals and world records aside, it’s Jessica Long’s outgoing personality, strong confidence and humble heart that makes her a perfect ambassador for the Coca-Cola brand.
“She has a true passion for inspiring others and she does so by sharing her story of how she has been able to turn her disability into her biggest ability, which has allowed her to achieve her dreams.”
Long is not entirely sure what her future holds, saying she is just focused on her training now.
“In a few months, I can sleep in all I want,” Long said. “This is the time to continue with all of the sacrifices.”
She wants to spend time with her family back in Baltimore (especially her brother, whose wife is expecting a baby in October) and school.
Her countdown to London is ticking, and as Long said, “I’m just training my heart out until then.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.