If Jessica Long swims competitively for as long as she hopes, she will be one of the most recognizable athletes when the Paralympics return to the U.S.
“I would love to swim until LA 2028,” Long, a 29-year-old who swam in the last four Paralympics, wrote in a Reddit AMA last week (full transcript here). “In the meantime I have another book idea, want to stay involved in public speaking and maybe do some coaching.”
Long was the latest Tokyo hopeful in a series of weekly AMA events. The full schedule is here.
Long burst into stardom at age 12, when she won three gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games. She’s now up to 23 Paralympic medals, including 13 golds, ranking second in U.S. history in total Paralympic medals behind fellow swimmer Trischa Zorn (overall record 55 medals).
Zorn competed in seven Paralympics, the last in 2004, at age 40 as a teammate of the pre-teen Long. If Long goes all the way through LA 2028, she will also reach seven Paralympics.
Long swam in at least seven events at each of the last three Paralympics. She’s preparing for a similarly busy schedule in Tokyo. The Paralympics open Aug. 24.
“In the Paralympics there are seven different events. I usually swim all seven,” she wrote. “We will have to see what happens this year though, I may cut out an event or two so I can get some better rest. There are also relay events, which I hope to get named too!”
Long navigated several challenges in recent years.
She left the 2016 Rio Games with six medals, but just one gold, down from five titles in 2012.
“Rio was really terrible, pretty much everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” she said, according to the International Paralympic Committee. “I was emotionally drained and mentally broken, and I had developed a really bad eating disorder [losing 20 pounds].”
Long also dealt with shoulder injuries, plus was without a coach for a time less than two months before the Opening Ceremony.
“I just wasn’t me,” she said, according to the IPC.
The following year, Long won eight gold medals at the world championships. But at 2019 Worlds, she failed to win a gold medal at a global championships for the first time.
She almost didn’t compete in the meet, which was moved from Malaysia to London and from July/August to September, three weeks before her wedding.
“I knew I wasn’t at my best,” Long said in 2019. “It was just a show up and learn some takeaways and strategies for Tokyo.”
Six months later, the Tokyo Games were postponed to 2021. Long, who practices at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, was out of the water for 75 days last year amid pool closures.
She rowed. She biked. She imitated her swimming stroke while holding weights. She surprised herself when she returned to swimming.
“How quickly I got back into it,” she said last month. “It was doing all those little exercises that really added up, for sure.”
Long has also spoken out in recent years about classification within Paralympic swimming.
In the same way that some Olympic sports group athletes by sex or weight, Paralympic sports group athletes by disability. It helps ensure that competition is as fair and equal as possible so that winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability, and mental focus, rather than degree of disability.
Swimmers with physical disabilities are divided into 10 classifications based on degree of impairment.
Long said there has been manipulation within the classification system, which is an inexact science, calling the overall issue “as serious as doping.”
That was part of the reason she left Rio bitter and angry. She started seeing a therapist, not to dwell on Rio or classification, but on her life outside of swimming. Long was born in Siberia without fibulas, ankles, heels and most of the other bones in her feet, and adopted by Americans from a Russian orphanage at 13 months old.
At 18 months old, her legs were amputated below the knees. She has had more than a dozen surgeries. Long began swimming in her grandparents’ pool after church on Sundays, pretending she was a mermaid.
In 2013, Long traveled with her younger sister to meet her birth parents, who were teenagers when Long was born, accompanied by an NBC Olympics production team for a film. This past winter, Long’s life story was the focus of a one-minute Super Bowl commercial. Naturally, she spent most of the ad in the water.
“I am a better person when I’m swimming,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Long won six gold medals at the 2016 Paralympics. She won six total medals.
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