Jessica Long rekindles love in fourth Paralympic bid

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Aug. 07, 2014, 12 p.m. (ET)
Jessica Long
Now a 12-time Paralympic gold medalist, Jessica Long is making a fourth bid for the Paralympic Games.

PASADENA, Calif. — Expectations are there whenever Jessica Long steps on to the pool deck. As dominate as Michael Phelps is in the able-bodied world, Long is expected to win, just as she has done in 12 finals at three Paralympic Games and dozens of competitions in between.

But other’s expectations are not what drives Long, who holds 11 world records, at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships, which started Wednesday in Pasadena, California. “I swim because I love to swim,” she said.

Long’s resume is complete. She has nearly every title available in Paralympic sport, including the 2007, 2011 and 2012 ESPY for Female Athlete with a Disability and 2012 United States Olympic Committee Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year.

National titles. Check.

World titles. Check.

Paralympic titles. Check.

All she needs now is love.

Never mind those expectations.

“What is important to me is that I love what I’m doing,” said Long, who moved back to her hometown after the 2012 Games to train at the North Baltimore Aquatics Club with Bob Bowman and staff, who coach Phelps. “And right now, I love what I’m doing. I love training. I love competing. I love every moment I’m in the water.”

The joy is shining through. On Day 1 at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, Long won the women’s 100-meter butterfly (S8) with a 1:10.68. She topped her nearest competitor by almost five seconds.

This year, the 22-year-old Baltimore native set a world record in that event, swimming a 1:09.60 in April after only training for the meet for a few weeks. Long preempted practice to be NBC Olympics’ on-camera talent for the unprecedented coverage of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in March.

A new role at the Games brought back her love of the Paralympic Movement.

“Sochi was such a great opportunity and I’m so thankful that NBC asked me to do that,” Long said. “To be at the Paralympics as a reporter instead of an athlete, it was a different experience. I think I might have been more nervous to be the one asking the questions than being the one answering questions. It was such a relief to get in the pool after that because the water is my place. I loved that atmosphere but this is where I’m comfortable.”

Long’s favorite moment on the other side of the camera was being a part of NBC’s live coverage of the gold medal game in sled hockey.

“One thing that was really special for me is that I was just in complete awe of the athletes and everything that they were doing,” she said. “They were skiing. They were snowboarding. They were playing sled hockey. They were just doing incredible things that I would never do. I was so amazed and inspired by everyone. I loved watching Alana Nichols win the silver and Amy Purdy win the bronze. I loved all of it.

“As I was watching them, I thought to myself, ‘How cool is it that these are Paralympic athletes?’” she said. “Then I had to take a step back and remember that I am a Paralympic athlete too. I appreciate my role and my impact as a Paralympian more now that I have been on the other side. I love that I’m able to make people feel the way I felt in Sochi. It was not something that I was expecting.”

Sochi rekindled her passion for Paralympic sport.

“After a Paralympics, it is hard to keep the intensity and focus that you need to swim at this level,” she said. “But Sochi made me really excited for the next two years. It was the inspiration, the push, the drive I needed to get my mind on Rio.”

Following the action in Pasadena, the next major events for U.S. swimmers include the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships scheduled for July 13-19, 2015, and the Parapan American Games, scheduled for Aug. 7-15, 2015. The 2016 Paralympic Games are Sept. 7-18.

“It is going to come fast but when you’re in weeks and weeks of training, it’s going to go really slow,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for me to love what I am doing. Training for a Paralympics is brutal sometimes so you have to enjoy the process.”

Her expectations for the next two years?

“I know people expect me to do well and that pressure can be stressful,” she said. “But I’m an athlete, I’m a competitor and I expect a lot from myself too. I want to show myself and show other people what Jessica Long is capable of doing. I know I’m capable of even more.”

Pasadena or Rio, expect her best.

She keeps getting better.

Competition at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships continues through Sunday with preliminaries scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and finals starting at 4:30 p.m. Live results are available on the Meet Mobile app.