By the time Jessica Long was 12 years old, she had won her first gold medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, just two years after learning how to swim. For Long, 29, this was just the beginning. The Paralympic swimmer would go on to win 22 more medals: 13 gold, six silver and four bronze in total over four Paralympics. Today, Long is the second-most-decorated Paralympian in U.S. history behind retired swimmer Trischa Zorn (55 medals).
But looking back on her life, Long never fully imagined she would be in this place. She never imagined she would be training to compete in her fifth Paralympics this summer in Tokyo.
And yet she knows that every time she jumps in the swimming pool or stands on the podium, she is doing it for others who aspire to be there one day and for her younger self: the little Serbian girl who was adopted from a Russian orphanage at 13 months old. Who was born with fibular hemimelia (she didn't have fibulas, ankles, heels or most of the other bones in her feet). Who had both legs amputated below the knees at 18 months so that she could be fitted for prosthetics and learn how to walk.
Long talked with espnW about how she trained through a pandemic, why she continues to find her purpose in and out of the pool and what it's like preparing for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games.
This has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On processing the pandemic and postponement of the 2020 Games:
"It was a lot to process. But for me, in the moment, I was really playing catch up. I got married in October 2019, so all of 2019, I was planning my wedding. And I had been swimming since I was 10 years old, but in 2019, I was like, 'Swimming is not my top priority.' In March of 2020, I knew I was playing catch up because I was behind with my training. When everything shut down, it was intense at first because I wasn't swimming [due to swimming pools closing because of COVID-19 precautions]. And that's where I get out all of my energy, where I process everything, go through the motions.
Within the first month of the pandemic, I ended up finding a pool that was about two hours away from my hometown in Baltimore, Maryland, and I would drive two hours to go swim. But at that point, we hadn't heard if Tokyo was going to be canceled or postponed. And then that pool got shut down. In the beginning, it was a lot. It was heavy. Everyone was going through it together. And then Tokyo got postponed. But in some weird way, I actually was really grateful. Not for what was happening to the world, but that I actually had an extra year to catch up.
But I also allowed myself to feel sad when I was down. I almost had to grieve that Tokyo wasn't happening. Because of the postponement, my other plans were pushed back a year. The things I had planned for in my personal life, [like family planning], would now be put on pause because of an extra year of training. But at the same time, I tried to approach it positively and gratefully, like, 'We're going to rise up from this.'"
On having an emotional toolbox to deal with the challenges of the pandemic:
"Maybe it's part of being an athlete, but I feel like we're really good, especially in swimming, about just pushing things down and pushing ahead. And since the Rio Paralympics [in 2016], I started seeing a therapist to talk about my mental health. I've definitely worked through a lot but at the same time, I feel like as an athlete, I'm really good at focusing on what's important in that moment and trying not to focus too much on the negative.
I really tried to stay away from the news. I wanted to be in the know, but not too much where I felt like I was having anxiety and wasn't able to even sleep at night. There's still rumors about the Olympics and Paralympics and whether or not they are happening. And sometimes, it does catch up with me and I sit with the fact that this year has been really hard. And I remind myself, 'Give yourself some grace. It's hard; no one's been through this.'
On inspiring the next generation of Paralympians:
"All of my life, I've loved proving people wrong. I've gotten to a point where I'm going to my fifth Paralympics, and I really want to prove to people that they can do it, too. Sometimes people look at people with disabilities and there's a moment where they just feel sorry for them.
When I was 12, there was one girl who said she felt sorry for me. And I was like, 'Why do you feel sorry for me?' It confused me because I had already won a gold medal at that point. I was in the Paralympics and so many wonderful things were happening. And as I get older, that's the one thing I really want to pass on to the next generation: not to be ashamed and really embrace the way you were born or if you were in an accident, know that you're not alone. That's something that I've learned from the Paralympics."
On understanding the connection between her confidence and swimming:
"When I wasn't able to swim because of COVID-19 protocols, I noticed a huge difference in my confidence. As an amputee, I feel super powerful when I'm swimming. It's where I get most of my confidence. When I wasn't able to swim for 75 days, I definitely noticed there were moments in my everyday life where I was like, 'Do I want to show off my legs?'
With my mental state, I just tried to control what I could control. I made sure to keep up with my ab routine, my band work. My physical therapist was open, so I got to see him a lot. I was on the rowing machine and biking, just trying to do the best that I could. And my family and teammates got me through that period.
Once I got back in the pool, it all came back. And it took me back to when I first started swimming as a little girl. I never joined this sport thinking I was going to win gold medals and break records. Swimming helped me with my confidence. I was part of a team. I got to be around girls my age who didn't treat me any differently. They didn't treat me like the disabled swimmer. They treated me like I was their friend and competitor. One of the biggest things I've gained through being a Paralympic athlete is confidence. Swimming has given me the confidence to take on this world, to take on all that it has to offer. Which is why not being able to swim for 75 days, I had to remind myself, 'Wow, this is real. You really do love feeling that power in that water. It gives you a lot.' That was a good life lesson."
On embracing her body and learning to love the journey:
"Everyone has something that they are insecure about. And I think mine happens to be on display for everyone to see. And as someone who had both legs amputated at 18 months old and went through 25 surgeries, I've definitely had moments of insecurity. There were moments where I didn't want to show my legs. And now, I'm at a point of confidence and will show them. And it is a journey. It's not every day I wake up and I'm like, 'You know what? I love this.' Every day is still hard. Every day I still put on two heavy prosthetics, and I walk out the door and I take on the day.
I definitely have conversations in my head where I'm like, 'This would be much easier if I just had legs.' But there are moments where I'm like, 'I can't imagine anything else.'"
On starring in a 2021 Super Bowl commercial and showcasing her story on a bigger platform:
"My story has been so incredible, but there's been hardships. Being adopted is still really hard, and I'm still processing even that abandonment. I can comprehend that my birth mom did the best thing for me and I've been adopted into such a wonderful, loving family. But that's not the case for everyone. And I would say part of the reason why I was such a good swimmer in the early days and racking in those gold medals was to feel worthy, to feel enough because I didn't feel whole enough from my adoption.
To see it all on display and to know that people are going to see this story and feel something from it, that was so hard, again, to comprehend. I was like, 'Are people going to like it?' But the responses were incredible, and if anything, I couldn't even keep up with all the responses that night. I cried. I just felt, 'How many people dream about getting a Super Bowl commercial, and this is unreal.' And especially if you knew that like four years prior, after Rio, I was very, very much considering retiring.
I wasn't able to be with my family [when the Super Bowl aired] because I was here in Colorado training. But my family sent me a video of my mom and dad watching it during the game. And to see my mom tear up and understanding that my parents ... how selfless they are. They didn't have to adopt, let alone adopt a baby from Siberia. It's just so special, and they went into the adoption knowing that I would have to have lots of surgeries. And I just think they're incredible. But I think it was really cool for them to see and just see everything that I had been able to do. But also, I wouldn't have been able to do anything without them."
On competing in her fifth Paralympics and viewing this year differently:
"I'm so grateful for the support from everyone and just getting to know the Paralympic movement. And just knowing there are people who paved the way for me, and I hope to continue to pave the way for the next generation. And when I stand behind those blocks in Tokyo, I'll know that I've put in all the work.
Also, I'm so proud that I'm still swimming. I think it's huge that my shoulders are still, after 19 years, swimming. I'm just really proud and excited to be competing for Team USA. No matter the outcome, I'm enough with or without the medals."