Jessica Long competes in Women's 200-meter Individual Medley SM7-8 at the Para Swimming World Championship Mexico City 2017 on Nov 7, 2017 in Mexico City.
For the first time on June 23, Olympic Day in the U.S. this year will be recognized as Olympic and Paralympic Day presented by Toyota. Team USA will include the Paralympic values, athletes and fans in the day, which has come to be an annual celebration, showcasing athletes at the highest level of their respective sports.
It’s another solid step forward for the U.S. Paralympic Movement on the road to integrating with its Olympic counterpart.
“Being so inclusive is a big start,” said 23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long, the second-most decorated U.S. Paralympian in history and Team Toyota athlete. “These are such steppingstones in the right direction, and this has been my dream since I was a little girl … That’s what I’ve wanted all along, to be on an equal playing field.”
The honorary day, first celebrated in 1948 to mark the birth of the modern Olympic Games, encourages people around the world to move, learn and discover sports. Organizations around the world host sports, cultural and educational activities to address people of all ages, genders, backgrounds and abilities.
Since Olympians and Paralympians have been helping sports fans get through the COVID-19 pandemic by sharing their daily workouts and tips to stay healthy, this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Day will build on that momentum. The International Olympic Committee is creating the world’s largest 24-hour digital-first workout made up of live athlete-led home workouts from around the globe. Long will join fellow Team USA members Laurie Hernandez and Colleen Quigley as one of the athletes featured on the IOC’s digital platforms.
“That was fun to film. I was screaming in my condo and my husband was like, ‘What are you filming?’” Long said of her cool-down stretch routine video. “I was more enthusiastic in that video — excited and cheering for people — than I was when I won a gold medal.”
Adopted from a Russian orphanage at 13 months old, Long grew up a double amputee and has swam at every Paralympic Games since 2004. She has 13 Paralympic titles and 35 world titles to her name, along with three ESPY awards, but perhaps what she’s appreciated most since she started competing is the increased integration of Paralympians.
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“I started competing at the Paralympics at 12 and I noticed beginning at that age that I always felt we were treated differently. Obviously we are different, but it’s just about understanding that we’ve always competed for the same team, Team USA,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the Paralympics are just parallel to the Olympic Games. That’s what Para stands for. That is what it was intended to be. It was never intended to be this separate thing where people question your eliteness.”
Since Long started swimming, the Paralympic Movement has seen a dramatic increase in media coverage, sponsorships and marketing value. So much so that in 2018, monetary awards for medal-earning U.S. Paralympians were made equal to those of medal-earning U.S. Olympians. That award parity increased payments by as much as 400 percent and will be reflected in every Games moving forward. Then last year, the United States Olympic Committee formally changed its name to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, a decision unanimously approved by the USOPC board of directors that has been reflected on all of its physical signage and digital platforms. It was such a historic moment that Long remembers exactly where she was last year when the “incredible” announcement of the rebrand happened.
With the first-ever Olympic and Paralympic Day happening during a critical time in the United States, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and a push to end racism and discrimination against Black Americans, Long recognizes everyone is going through a tough time and hopes the day can inspire people and lift them up.
“There’s nothing you can’t achieve if you put your mind to it, and I think Paralympians are living proof of that,” she said. “It’s a way to stand out. We were born to be different and we all play a role in society. We just have to continue to lift each other up."
“Everyone has such a unique story and everyone is going through something. It’s OK to be different. It’s such a superpower. And the more we normalize that, the more acceptance there will be.”
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.