Jessica Long competing in Beijing Paralympics in 2008. (Joe Kusumoto/U.S. PARALYMPICS )
The best swimmer you’ve never heard of made the U.S. team for the Athens Summer Games at the age of 12, where she shocked her rivals and came home with three gold medals. She picked up six more, four of them gold, in Beijing and currently is in Colorado Springs, wrapping up her preparations for London in a full-time training program supported by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
At 15, she won the venerable AAU Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s top amateur athlete. Some of the people she beat? Them you know: quarterback Brady Quinn, basketball player Joakim Noah, speedskater Apolo Ohno and fellow swimmer Michael Phelps.
To this day, Jessica Long, now all of 20 years old, remains the only athlete with a disability to receive that honor in its 82-year history.
“I didn’t even prepare a speech or anything. It wasn’t like I went thinking, ‘Oh there’s a chance I could win,’ ” the Baltimore native said when I called her recently. “I never expected them to pick me.
“So I was just sitting up there on the stage, and they’re announcing the winner, and I was staring off into space. I remember that, staring off into space, and they announced my name and I’m still staring off into space. And one girl, I forget who she was, tapped my shoulder and she was like, ‘That’s you, you won.’ ”
The Paralympic Games follow the Olympic Games every four years, without the fanfare and worldwide attention focused on the main event. When the planet’s best athletes gather to compete, we want to know who deserves the title of world’s fastest man — not fastest with cerebral palsy or fastest with sight impairment.
For the first time ever, an amputee — South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius— will compete against able-bodied Olympians in London, which might change the playing field a bit this year. But disabled swimmers compete mostly in obscurity, matched in 14 categories that pit them against others with similar physical, mental or visual handicaps. In that world, Long is a superstar.
She holds 20 world records, calls companies such as Visa, Coca-Cola, Ralph Lauren, Oakley and Speedo sponsors and has a nascent modeling career. She stands 5-foot-10 in her prosthetic legs, with wide shoulders and considerable upper body strength — a human prototype for speed in the water, like budding U.S. star Missy Franklin. Except that where Franklin wears size 13 shoes, Long was born without most of the bones in her feet, ankles or fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee shortly after her first birthday.
That never seemed to hold her back as a child. Her father, Steve Long, remembers a toddler in constant motion, who, as she grew accustomed to locomoting without lower legs, could get anywhere she wanted. He and his wife would find her on kitchen counters and climbing the refrigerator, he told me.
“Even on gym sets and monkey bars . . . she could outdo other kids. She could grab hold and swing around and look like she never got tired.” And she always had an athlete’s competitive fire: “She wanted to always prove that she could do what everyone else could do,” he said. “And not just do it, do it better than the others.”
The Longs, who had two children of their own, adopted Jessica and a little boy, who they named Josh, from a Siberian orphanage when Jessica was 13 months old. Her obvious physical disability, called fibular hemimelia, did not deter them.
“We were open, actually, to kids with physical disabilities,” Steve Long said. “We felt we’d be in a position to help them out. We were up for that challenge.”
It wasn’t long before the couple’s youngest daughter was in the water.
“I always loved to swim,” Jessica Long said. “Ever since I can remember, I swam in my grandparents’ pool. Every Sunday after church, we’d go over there for brunch and I’ d eat as fast as I could to be the first one in the pool. I’d swim in that pool for hours, until my eyes were bloodshot. I loved it.
“There’s something about it to me, the feeling of the water, and feeling, I don’t know, equal, and like everyone else. Which is kind of funny because I didn’t actually start swimming right away as a sport.”
No, Long’s first sport was gymnastics, which she loved. But her parents worried about the toll all those landings would take on her knees. “It hurt everybody who was watching,” Steve Long said. “She just found it to be normal.” Her parents demanded that Jessica wear her prostheses, which she likened to negotiating a balance beam on stilts. She turned to swimming.
After a storybook first Paralympic Games in 2004, Long suffered some burnout when she came home with fewer than the seven gold medals she had predicted for Beijing. She said reporters questioned her only about falling short of her goal, not the six medals she won against competitors from around the world.