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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