Jessica Long has faced challenges that would make most of us throw in the towel. But she has faced each one head-on, and won. Not only in her personal life, but at the Paralympics, swimming to win 23 medals (13 gold, 6 silver, 4 bronze)—the second-most of any U.S. Paralympian in history.
Fighting Since Birth
Jessica Long was born in 1992 to teenage Siberian parents who made the agonizing decision to give her up for adoption. At the age of 13 months, a family from Baltimore, Maryland adopted her from a Russian orphanage. Emerging from an already intense experience, Jessica faced yet another hurdle—she was born with fibular hemimelia, leaving her without fibulas, ankles, heels, and the majority of the other bones in her feet.
Because of her condition, Jessica’s legs were amputated below the knee at 18 months old. She was fitted for prosthetics and hit the ground running. As a young girl she fell in love with sports, and she’s never let her disability slow her down.
“When I was younger, I loved gymnastics and was always flipping and swinging all over my house like an animal,” says Jessica. “My parents didn’t love it, because it wasn’t safe to land hard on my legs without my prosthetics on. They encouraged me to find sports outside of gymnastics.”
“I began swimming by playing around in my grandparents’ pool like I was a mermaid,” she says. “I was drawn to swimming because I was self-conscious about my legs. Being in the water helped me hide them, and I didn’t need to wear my prosthetics.”
Jessica has never felt like her adoptive family is anything but her real family. She credits her dad for being her biggest motivator and inspiration.
“My dad is my rock,” she says. “He drove me to practice and swim meets, and he was actually the one who picked me up from the orphanage. He’s always believed in me. He worked all day to provide for our family, so our time together was when he would tuck me in at night. Before I went to bed, we would always talk about my dreams and goals. It was a really special time.”
Jessica was never shy to the fact that she was adopted and has openly shared her story across many platforms. But there was never a yearning to find her birth parents, she had everything she needed at home.
In 2013, a Russian news outlet tracked down Jessica’s biological parents without her knowledge and shared their information with both her and her adoptive family. Jessica travelled to Russia to meet her biological family in 2014.
“By the time my biological family was located, I was ready to meet them. It was truly a great experience. I saw so much of a resemblance in my mother. My parents had children after me, so I was glad I got to meet my biological siblings as well.”
From an orphan at 13 months to becoming one of the greatest Paralympic swimmers of all time, Jessica has truly come a long way. And she’s truly grateful for the impact her family has made through every step of her journey.
Like a Fish to Water
From the beginning, Jessica excelled at swimming. Growing up homeschooled allowed her extra time in the pool to train and push herself in a way competition couldn’t. Being the only girl amputee on her swim team motivated her to work even harder.
And after only two years of competitive swimming, Jessica arrived at the 2004 U.S. Paralympic Trials at the age of 12. No one expected to her to make any waves at the Trials, but she would prove them wrong.
“The thought of making the Paralympic Games in 2004 wasn’t even on my mind at the time,” she says. “My lap times leading up to Trials weren’t at the qualifying level. But to everyone’s surprise, I made it as the youngest person on the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team. Even as a 12-year-old, my tenacity and will to win pushed me over the edge. My whole life led up to making the 2004 U.S. team, proving I’m good enough to compete with the best in the world.”
Jessica left the Games with three gold medals for the 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle, and 4 × 100m freestyle relay. But making the Paralympic team and seeing Athens wasn’t enough for her. Since the 2004 Paralympic Games, she has gone on to win an additional 10 Olympic gold medals in Beijing, London, and Rio.
Reaping What You Sow
“There are so many things swimming has taught me over the past 15-plus years,” says Jessica. “Whether you are new to the sport or a veteran, you have to be disciplined and hyper-focused on your goals. It’s not easy getting in the pool every day, but you have to be consistent with your training and honor the commitments you’ve made. You don’t become great overnight, but the sacrifice will pay off.”
“There were times I wanted to quit,” she adds. “I remember training with the US Olympic swim team. It was incredibly difficult—these are some of the best athletes in the world. But I saw this opportunity as a blessing, and it turned into a proud moment for me.”
If Jessica had quit altogether, no one would have batted an eye. After countless surgeries and infections, it’d be easy to call it a day. But she never did. She never stopped pushing to be a better person and a better swimmer. Her determination and fighting spirit make her who she is today.
“I look at swimming like my I look at my life. You have a choice—fight through the tough times, or quit.”
She never quit.
Just Another Speedbump
2020 wouldn’t be considered a banner year for anyone—and it’s been no different for Jessica. She set her sights on competing in Tokyo this summer and adding to her collection of gold medals. But the global pandemic has postponed the Games to until 2021, with the viability of those Games in question as well.
On the up side, the extra year to train is somewhat of a blessing for Jessica. She spent most of 2019 planning her wedding with her now-husband Lucas, whom she married in October. With 2021 getting closer by the day, she’s refocused and her training is back on course.
Already a healthy eater, Jessica is honing up her diet to get into competition shape. The pools have also opened up—after being closed for three months—allowing her to spend some serious time in the water.
With a considerable amount of time on dry land this year, Jessica’s pushed hard to stay in shape. She continues with her physical therapy, trains with friends, and keeps in contact with her coaches.
And the trials of this year aren’t just physical—maintaining her mental health has also been paramount.
“It’s been hard staying positive this year, but it’s helped to remind myself that I’m not alone and everyone is going through the same thing,” says Jessica. “I’ve kept in touch with friends and family on the phone or through FaceTime, and just talking to people has helped keep me at ease.”
Like the rest of us, 2020 will only be a small speedbump in the road for Jessica. Nothing in her life has ever held her back from doing what she loves, and I strongly suspect nothing ever will.
7 Facts About Jessica
Why do you trust USANA? I train to be the best, so naturally I want to put the best products in my body. My dad and I have our secret weapons we always talk about: sleep, visualizing, and vitamins. Partnering with USANA was a no-brainer—they are passionate about their athlete program and allow so many athletes from different sports to connect with one another.
What is your favorite USANA product? I love the Celavive Exfoliating Scrub + Mask. Since I spend so much time in a chlorinated pool, using the Celavive Exfoliating Scrub + Mask really helps my skin feel back to normal. Sometimes I will even do a workout with the mask on. I am also an avid HealthPak user. It makes keeping track of my vitamins so much easier. My favorite time to take my vitamins is right before bed, it’s a great feeling knowing I’m nourishing my body while I sleep and I feel like it gives me an extra boost when I wake up.*
What are your hobbies outside of the pool? I have a serious passion for interior design. I also love cleaning and organizing. And staying active and busy helps me feel my strongest.
What’s on your workout playlist right now? I have such a random collection of music—you can find me listening to anything from foreign pop and Celine Dion, to Enya, or Shakira, Florence and the Machine, Fifth Harmony, and even country.
Best pool you’ve ever swum in? Hands down it was the Water Cube (National Aquatics Center) facility in Beijing during the 2008 Paralympics. It was an amazing atmosphere and one of the most unique places I’ve ever swum in. The best part was seeing all the lights on the roof of the building while doing backstroke.
What would you like to do after you hang up the goggles? I definitely want to keep swimming as long as possible and never really step away from the sport. I want to write more books, especially a children’s book. And I enjoy public speaking, so I would like to move into doing motivational speaking. It would also be fun to be a commentator for swim events. At the end of the day, I want to do what I can to grow the sport.
Favorite cheat meal? Definitely has to be sushi, especially when any form of spicy mayo is involved.
Where to follow Jessica: @jessicatianalong on Instagram