Jessica Long is back after her biggest break in 20 years

Jessica Long
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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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Isabeau Levito, Bradie Tennell, Amber Glenn named to U.S. team for World Championships

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – With a calm command belying her age, Isabeau Levito has taken control of U.S. women’s skating at age 15.

Levito came here as the solid favorite to take her first national title, and she did it with a seemingly effortless grace, her balletic style producing solid winning performances in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate.

She was the last of 18 skaters in the free skate, following rivals who made mistakes big and small. Levito did not need perfection, but her skating approached it, even if the execution of some jumps could have been better.

Levito left no doubt of her superiority and burst into a wide smile even before the scores were announced. After a narrow win over Bradie Tennell (.02 points) in the short program, Levito (223.33) wound up 10.21 points ahead of the runner-up Tennell (213.12) in the final standings.

Amber Glenn was third at 207.44. She, Levito and Tennell will fill the three women’s places on the U.S. team for the March World Championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Two of the three U.S. women’s skaters on the 2022 Olympic team have announced their retirements (Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell; Karen Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return). Given that and Tennell’s recurrent problems with injuries, Levito’s stature as the leading U.S. woman seemed assured. Whatever pressure she felt holding that position was not evident.

“My entire goal truly for both programs was to stay composed and to really try to suppress my nerves as much as possible and to really not let little minor silly mistakes happen,” Levito said. “I feel as though I did just that today and I’m very proud of myself for it.”

“I’ve gotten very good at suppressing nerves,” she had said after the short program. “I still feel the effects of the competition. But I find my own way mentally to handle it.”

For both Tennell and Glenn, there was a redemptive quality to their skating.

Neither had a result at last year’s nationals. Glenn had to withdraw after the short program when she tested positive for COVID. Tennell never made it to the event because of the foot injury that kept her out of competition for all last season.

“Honestly, it was terrifying being back here after the conclusion of my season last year,” Glenn said. “That was a big mental hurdle for me, but I was happy I was actually able to enjoy myself again and enjoy competing.”

Glenn made her 10th career attempt at a triple axel, stepping out of the landing after getting full rotational credit. Her persistence in trying that jump, which she never has landed cleanly, is one reason she was holding her hip after finishing the free skate. Glenn insisted it was just soreness.

“An unfortunate side effect of being 23 and doing these ultra (difficult) elements is my body can’t always keep up very well,” Glenn said.

Tennell, who turns 25 Tuesday, has been battling an injury in her right foot for more than a year, then an injury in her left foot since October. She fought past all that to make the podium for the fifth time in her last five nationals – twice first, twice second and once third.

“This one probably means the most, because I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this again,” Tennell said. “To be here and to have achieved it, especially after the (poor) start of my season and the bumps that I had to overcome, I’m very proud of what I accomplished.”

Levito, the reigning world junior champion, reeled off seven triple jumps, two in combination with other triple jumps. She glided from element to element seamlessly.

“I finally skated the free the way I’ve been training to do it,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

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