Jessica Long is back after her biggest break in 20 years

Jessica Long

Someone was missing from this past summer’s World Para Swimming Championships. Jessica Long, the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history, was absent from a global championship meet for the first time in 20 years.

Long made the team for June’s worlds in Portugal, but she dropped out before the meet, citing burnout and a post-Games blues after an enjoyable fifth Paralympics in Tokyo, where she won three golds, two silvers and a bronze.

“It felt too soon to go and race,” at worlds, she said. “It’s really hard when you’re expected to constantly win and perform. I want to go and present my absolute best. Mentally, I was feeling a little negative. I don’t feel my best. I think it’s better if I just pull out.”

Long returned at the national championships in Charlotte earlier this month. It came at the end of a year devoid of the intense training that helped her win 29 Paralympic medals between 2004 (at age 12) and 2021.

She took a sisters trip to Cabo this year. She saw the vice president. If she didn’t feel like swimming on a certain day, she didn’t get into the pool.

She also took antidepressants for the first time, though she is off them now.

“It’s never really been about the medals; my identity is not in swimming, but it was wild to come back [from Tokyo] and feel like, why do I feel so weird? It was almost like no joy, like nothing satisfied me,” she said. “Swimming has always given me that confidence to take on the world as an amputee. So this past year [without swimming], I think it’s more of just such a funk. I’m slowly getting out of it since September.”

Long, 30, credited her success in Tokyo largely to moving a year before the Games from Baltimore, where she lived with her husband (married in 2019), to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She stayed in the same dorm room where she spent four years in her late teens and early 20s.

She moved back to Baltimore after the Paralympics and is working with her childhood coach, Andrew Barranco.

Long plans to return to worlds next summer in Manchester, England, and hopes to compete in two more Paralympics, making the 2028 Los Angeles Games her farewell.

There is little that hasn’t been accomplished in the pool, though she wants to break 2:40 again in the 200m individual medley, which she won at the last four Paralympics. A back condition — Long learned before the Tokyo Games that she has an extra vertebra — affects her breaststroke.

Outside of races and times, Long’s sights are set. She just finished the cover for the children’s book she’s worked on with her dad — “The Mermaid with No Tail” — that will come out closer to the 2024 Paralympics. She hopes that her birth mom, who is Russian, can watch her compete for the first time at those Paris Games.

Back home in Baltimore, Long has 28 of her 29 medals. Most of them are locked away in a closet. One is above the fridge, should she need to grab it quickly for a public appearance or to show a guest.

“It’s dirty and gross from being dropped and chipped,” she said.

One more medal, from her Paralympic debut at age 12 in 2004, is somewhere else in storage after spending time in a museum.

As Long said, the medals are not the focus. And after the last year, her goal for the Paris Games at the moment is just to get there. The competition ramp up begins at a World Series meet in Indianapolis in April.

“That’s going to set the tone,” Long said. “I definitely know, as an athlete, what I need to do. It’s more coming to terms of starting to make those sacrifices that come with it. I think I’m ready. But, yeah, that was just a hard year.”

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Jessica Pegula upset in French Open third round

Jessica Pegula French Open

Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American man or woman, was upset in the third round of the French Open.

Elise Mertens, the 28th seed from Belgium, bounced the third seed Pegula 6-1, 6-3 to reach the round of 16. Pegula, a 29-year-old at a career-high ranking, had lost in the quarterfinals of four of the previous five majors.

Down 4-3 in the second set, Pegula squandered three break points in a 14-minute game. Mertens then broke Pegula to close it out.

Pegula’s exit leaves No. 6 seed Coco Gauff, last year’s runner-up, as the last seeded hope to become the first U.S. woman to win a major title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major span without an American champ is the longest for U.S. women since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Mertens, who lost in the third or fourth round of the last six French Opens, plays a Russian Anastasia in the fourth round: Pavlyuchenkova or Potapova.

Earlier, ninth-seeded Russian Daria Kasatkina became the first player to reach the fourth round. She won 6-0, 6-1 over 69th-ranked American Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA champion from Texas.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is the lone American woman left in the bottom half of the draw. She plays Kazakh Yulia Putintseva later Friday. Gauff, Bernarda Pera and Kayla Day remain in the top half.

Friday’s featured men’s matches: Top seed Carlos Alcaraz versus 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada, and No. 3 Novak Djokovic against No. 29 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.

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Olympians, Paralympians get early look at Paris on ‘Top Chef’ World All-Stars


A year from now, they hope to vie for medals in the City of Light. But on this day, four U.S. hopefuls for the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics competed on “Top Chef” World All-Stars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the first cross-promotional moment across NBC Universal’s One Platform for the Games.

As Parisians and tourists traversed the Champ de Mars, Olympic champions gymnast Suni Lee and sprinter Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Paralympic champion swimmer Mallory Weggemann and medalist sprinter Hunter Woodhall bundled and huddled and did everything possible to stay warm between rain showers.

Then came the 30-minute frenzy. Each athlete was paired with a cheftestant for what the Bravo series calls a wall challenge: the chef and the athlete each attempted to make the same dish while separated by a divider, unable to see what the other was doing. The duo whose dishes have the closest appearance and taste win.

It’s little surprise that Weggemann prevailed. At 33 on the day of filming, she’s a decade older than the rest of the athletes.

When she was 18, Weggemann lost movement from the waist down while receiving epidural injections to treat shingles. Four years later, she swam at her first Paralympics and won her first gold medal.

“I understand that when I go onto a [filming] set like today, and I’m rolling rather than stepping, that looks different,” she said. “Not everyone who’s going to watch ‘Top Chef’ is a sports fanatic, and so they maybe don’t watch the Olympics and Paralympics, but in that moment, we got to bring them into the movement in a way that we maybe otherwise wouldn’t. I’m not oblivious to the fact that as a woman with a disability in that moment, I also have the power to change perceptions because not everyone in our society has exposure to disability.”

Each of the athletes, flown in by Delta, the official airline of Team USA through the 2028 Los Angeles Games, came at a different point in their journeys.

Weggemann has already been to three Paralympics and earned five medals. She did the “Top Chef” competition while three months pregnant. Baby Charlotte arrived March 16. Her goal is to be on the podium in Paris and be able to see her husband and daughter in the stands.

Woodhall, who won three medals in Tokyo in his Paralympic debut, visited the French capital with his then-fiancée Tara Davis, who placed sixth in the Tokyo Olympic long jump. Their Texas wedding was a month after the “Top Chef” filming.

“In Tokyo, we weren’t able to be there for each other,” said Woodhall, referring to COVID-19 travel restrictions for those Games not allowing spectators. “Paris is so exciting because we’ll both be able to really be in the moment and support each other through both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

McLaughlin-Levrone had husband Andre Levrone Jr., a former NFL practice squad wide receiver, by her side in Paris. Before “Top Chef,” she had a whirlwind spring and summer, getting married in May and then twice breaking her world record in the 400m hurdles. At the top of her sport, McLaughlin-Levrone had a decision to make in the fall and winter offseason: continue in the hurdles, where she has accomplished everything, or venture into another event, the 400m without hurdles, to test herself.

“That world record has stood for so long, and no one’s come even close to it,” she said of the flat 400m, and its 37-year-old world record, while in Paris. “So we definitely want to be able to try that and see what we can do there as well.”

Now, McLaughlin-Levrone is set to return to Paris next week for her first outdoor race since August. It will be a flat 400m. She also plans to race the 400m at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July, and possibly at August’s world championships in lieu of the hurdles.

Top Chef World All-Stars
Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and cheftestant Sara Bradley meet after preparing their dishes during the “Top Chef” wall challenge. (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

The gymnast Lee became one of the unexpected golden stories of the Tokyo Games. After Simone Biles withdrew from the meet, the Hmong American from Minnesota seized the all-around title, the biggest prize in her sport.

She hasn’t performed in international gymnastics since. Lee matriculated at Auburn and competed for the Tigers. But NCAA gymnastics involves different routines, competitions and scoring than Olympic gymnastics. It’s such a contrast that, traditionally, joining a college team has often meant retirement from the Olympic level.

The afternoon before the “Top Chef” filming, Lee walked inside the Accor Arena in the Bercy neighborhood, the site of the 2024 Olympic gymnastics events. A competition was taking place that included the Brazilian who took silver behind Lee in Tokyo.

“I am a little nervous to get back out on the bigger stage,” Lee said then. “Going to that meet actually was really important to me because I think I needed the help of re-motivating myself and seeing what I’m getting back into, watching the competition, just getting used to that atmosphere again.”

Two months after that experience, Lee announced she would leave Auburn after her sophomore year to return to elite training for a 2024 Paris Olympic bid.

The “Top Chef” integration helps launch summer Paris Games-related fanfare, including national and world championships in many Olympic and Paralympic sports and events to mark the one-year-out dates from the Opening Ceremonies (July 26 for the Olympics, Aug. 28 for the Paralympics).

“Top Chef,” in its 20th season, previously featured Olympians before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and then again before Tokyo. Host Padma Lakshmi noticed a common trait.

“Their attention to detail is extraordinary,” she said. “Having that Olympic training, and really listening to what your coaches want, and what the parameters of the contest is, is something that they’re skilled at doing day in and day out.”

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