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Even With 23 Paralympic Medals, Jessica Long Still As Motivated To Keep Winning – And To Give Back

By Stuart Lieberman | March 28, 2018, 10:09 a.m. (ET)


Jessica Long’s last name perfectly describes the list of accomplishments in her historic swimming career.

The second-most decorated U.S. Paralympian has no shortage of achievements:

  • 23 Paralympic medals
  • 13 Paralympic gold medals
  • 31 world titles
  • 5 world records
  • 3 ESPY Awards

That’s more than enough to consider Long, 26, one of Team USA’s most groundbreaking female athletes ever.

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“As a little girl at 12, just getting on that podium in Athens would have been exciting, so walking away with three gold medals really set the bar high,” Long said. “Now, here I am at 26, hoping to make my fifth Paralympics in a couple years in Tokyo.”

But what Long, a bubbly yogi and coffee-lover, did most recently under the radar may best illustrate why she’s one of the most admired role models in sports.

After winning eight golds at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in December, Long took off three months from the pool for the first time in her 14-year international career. She dedicated those months to inspiring the next generation, coaching an all-girls school swim team in her hometown of Baltimore.

“Seeing their work ethic and how excited they were to train in a sport I’m so passionate about was incredible,” Long said. “Their little faces lit up when they dropped in time, and that was just so exciting for me.

“I took a step back from the sport while still being a part of the sport, and it really helped me fall in love with swimming again and confirm that I still wanted to be a part of this.”

Long’s source of motivation for Tokyo 2020 is now certainly different than when she made her Paralympic debut at the Athens 2004 Games.

Long was adopted from a Russian orphanage at 13 months and had her legs amputated below the knees at 18 months, two life-altering changes that eventually led to her being the youngest athlete on the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team in Athens, where she won three golds after spending hours a day on her elbow placement, hand placement and breathing technique.

After putting loads of pressure on herself at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008, where she won four golds, a silver and a bronze, Long contemplated retirement.

Yes, that’s right. At 16.

Jessica Long competes in women's 100 m butterfly S8-10 at the Para Swimming World Championship Mexico City 2017 on Nov. 6, 2017 in Mexico City.

“It was crazy and ridiculous,” she said. “I was so dramatic.”

But then she remembered her idol who paved the way ahead of her and urged her to keep going.

“For me, without (14-time Paralympic champion) Erin Popovich leading the way, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Long said. “She was one of the first athletes to have big-time success and paved the way for me with sponsorships for Paralympic athletes.

“She was always someone I looked up to in and out of the pool. She was such a fierce competitor, she was driven, she was kind, and you knew that when she stepped up on the blocks she would compete well for Team USA.”

Long, wanting to be like Popovich, came back stronger than ever, taking five golds, two silvers and a bronze at the London 2012 Games.

One of six children with a large support system, she then hit another snag — at least in her mind — at the Rio 2016 Games, walking away with just one gold to go along with three silvers and two bronzes. But the burnout and bad shoulders are what gave one of Team USA’s most storied Paralympians an extra source of motivation to rebuild mentally and keep redefining her limits.

“There were so many things that weren’t the best,” Long said. “But I learned from that, and I learned about talking to someone during the process and to rely on my family and to just enjoy the process.

“You’re always learning new things and how to perfect your stroke and be as efficient in the water as possible — that’s what keeps me around, that constant drive to get better.”

Mentally stronger than ever, she’s now jumping back in the pool at 5:45 a.m. every day, proving she’s “Unsinkable,” which happens to be the title of her photographic memoir coming out in June.

Co-written with her sister Hannah, the book chronicles her lifetime, from the adoption to what it’s like not winning medals.

She’s stepped into Popovich’s shoes, paying the way herself now, and with her own voice.

“It’s never really been about me, but more about what I can do for the sport and Paralympic Movement, always just giving back to the next generation,” Long said.

“Seeing the growth of the Paralympic Movement and the fact that I may have played a small part in that is really exciting. Just seeing more and more kids with disabilities getting out and being active is what it’s all about.”

Long is certainly more than an athlete now. She’s a movement herself, one that will exist even after she takes her final lap, whenever that may be.

“It’s so hard for me to picture it all ending,” Long said. “I’m never ever going to be away from the Paralympic Movement, though. I’m always, in some capacity, going to be involved.”

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Jessica Long