Before Jessica Long, 29, jumped off the block into the pool for the 200-meter individual medley SM8 (Paralympic swimming classification) in late August at the Tokyo Paralympics, she reminded herself of something.
“I know how to swim,” Long said to herself, over and over again. “I know how to do this.”
The day prior, Long competed in her first event at the Tokyo Games. It was the 100-meter backstroke, and the five-time Paralympian knew that her first event would be a challenge. Long, a double below-the-knee amputee, wanted to start with a physical and mental test, though. She was ready for it.
“I was actually really grateful that I was opening with the 100 backstroke just because sure it’s always been an event that’s really challenging for me not being able to kick, so I just have to really power through,” Long said.
Finishing with a bronze, Long felt like it was a win. But she also knew that this was just the beginning. “That was really a win to me, but I was looking forward to the next day and the 200m,” Long said. “This was the one that I came into the Games and wanted to win.”
Originally from Siberia and adopted from a Russian orphanage when she was 13 months old, Long was born with fibular hemimelia. She didn’t have fibulas, ankles, heels and most of the bones in her feet. When Long was 18 months old, she underwent surgery to have her legs amputated below the knees. Throughout her childhood, she had numerous surgeries and got fitted for prosthetic legs so that she could learn how to walk.
Growing up in Baltimore, Long played various sports. But it wasn’t until she learned how to swim in her grandparents’ pool that she felt like she fully belonged. For hours, Long would be immersed in the water, pretending she was a mermaid. It was her escape and her happy place. By the time she was 10, she had joined her first competitive swim team.
Two years later, at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, Long was the youngest athlete on the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team at 12. After winning three gold medals, she gained international attention. In the years following, Long became a rising star in the Paralympics community.
“Swimming took away the pain of my childhood. The pain from the surgeries. I felt weightless. I felt unstoppable in the water,” Long said about her early days in the pool.
Now the oldest competitor in the Tokyo 200 IM field, Long didn’t know what to expect from her competition.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Long knew that she would encounter competitors, especially international swimmers, that she has never raced before. She also knew that just like how her training shifted because of the pandemic, so did her competitors’ training.
“I was not really sure what my competitors were going to do,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure like I have been in the past.”
But even with the potential uncertainties surrounding her competition, Long reminded herself that she was prepared for this moment. “This was the one that I really thought about the most and visualized and just kind of mentally prepared for,” Long recalled.
The moment she hit the water, everything up until that moment just evaporated. The nerves. The uncertainties. The pressure. Everything turned to black for Long. Everything but the ability to swim.
“It’s something I love to do,” Long said. “And no matter the outcome, I think my mentality going to this Games was no matter what happens, you’ve tried your best. And understanding that and really believing it gave me a lot more peace with each race that came.”
It didn’t take long. With a time of 2:41.49, Long claimed the gold medal and notched the first four-peat of her Paralympic career. Long went on to win four more medals in Tokyo, racking up her total to 29 career medals. But for the second-most-decorated Paralympian in history and the most-decorated active Paralympian, it’s not about the medal count and records. It’s what those medals and records represent.
“This 200m gold medal makes me really proud,” Long said one week after returning home from Tokyo. “I really found out yet again just how tough and strong I am. This one makes me the most emotional.”
About one year before the Tokyo Games, Long decided to move out to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Leaving her hometown of Baltimore, Long said she made a huge sacrifice in choosing to be away from her family and husband. But she knew it was what she needed to do for her training and career.
“The journey is the hardest part, but it’s been so worth it,” she said. “I think about all the work that went into it all. The pain of stepping up when I was exhausted in Colorado. When I was shaking on the blocks during training, there were so many opportunities where I didn’t have to work as hard, but I did. Moments where I would step up and race the 200 during training, absolutely exhausted but I did it.”
For years, Long felt like her medals controlled her. She’s competed in the Paralympics for more than half her life. Year in and year out, Long pushed herself to be better. To be faster. To be stronger. “The medals controlled me and my emotions and just how I felt about myself,” Long said.
It wasn’t until her experience in 2016 at the Rio Paralympics that Long realized she needed something to change. She couldn’t keep living like this. It was exhausting and draining and drifting her further and further away from that little girl that just loved to swim.
In Rio, Long claimed six medals. But she still felt like the experiences before, during and after were extremely disappointing. Recovering from two shoulder injuries, Long didn’t feel like she was performing at her best. On top of that, there was a new classification system for Paralympic swimming which allowed more able-bodied competitors to compete against double-amputees like Long.
According to World Para Swimming, “There are ten different sport classes for athletes with physical impairment, numbered 1-10. The lower the number, the more severe the activity limitation. Athletes with different impairments compete against each other because sport classes are allocated based on the impact the impairment has on swimming, rather than the impairment itself.” Long’s sport classification S8, SB7 and SM8 allows her to compete against other swimmers who might have significant restrictions across hip, knee and ankle joints.
With so many things out of her control, Long felt like the only thing she could control was her eating.
“I really struggled with my worth because I didn’t have legs, and I was racing against girls with legs,” Long said. “And at that time, I found a lot of control with eating. I thought I was controlling the situation by not eating. I thought if I was smaller, I would be faster. I lost 20 pounds. I look back on that girl in Rio, and I just see a girl who’s really hurting. I wish I could just go back and hug her.”
On the verge of retiring and feeling lost, Long hit pause on everything. Her boyfriend at the time, who is now her husband, Lucas, suggested she talk to a therapist. Five years ago, sitting in her first therapy appointment, the Paralympian wondered what she was supposed to do. She questioned why she was there. The perfectionist in her was wondering if she was saying and doing the right things.
Then, something started to change for Long. Week after week, she’d return to her therapist. And week after week, she realized that it was never really about swimming or her sport. It was much bigger.
“It was never about swimming. It was never about my performance. It was more about how a lot of my pain came from being adopted. Not having legs. Things out of my control,” Long said. “It was also about learning to love myself.”
After Rio, Long paused competition for about a year. However, Long didn’t stray too far away from swimming. She started coaching at a girls school, and her whole perspective changed. Viewing the sport through a younger generation’s eyes, Long witnessed them fall in love with a sport that she had loved for so long. A sport that at one time made her love herself.
“I felt so much pain from Rio,” Long said. “It was just so healing for me [to work with the girls]. Instead of focusing solely on me and what went wrong with me and why me, it was like, well the sport has given me so much. I realized I didn’t have to hate the sport to work through everything. It’s always been there for me.”
This past year, Long’s sponsor Toyota asked her to participate in a national commercial detailing her childhood and journey through the sport. For Long, this process constantly brought her back to the early days. It reminded her of where she came from. It reminded her of who stands by her side on this journey. And it reminded her of where she’s still going.
During the 2021 Super Bowl, Long’s Toyota commercial aired for the first time. Throughout the entire Olympic and Paralympic Games, the commercial played.
“I don’t remember a lot of my early childhood because it was so incredibly painful. I was getting surgery after surgery,” Long said. “And then once we put together this beautiful commercial where Toyota showed the world who I was and what I’ve been through, I was reminded of my worth and how far I’ve come and the people who have supported me along the way.”
While in Tokyo, Long found herself thinking about that little, 12-year-old girl competing in her first Paralympics. She thought about those moments of feeling unstoppable. The moments where doubt didn’t cross her mind.
“When I think back to my 12-year-old self, I see a determination and fierceness that I want to channel,” Long said. “There were a few moments in Tokyo and before I got there that I just wanted to give up a little, but then I remembered that girl. That little 12-year-old didn’t give up. So, I’m not giving up.”
Standing on the podium after claiming her gold medal in the 200m in Tokyo, Long couldn’t help but get emotional. She still had days of competition left, days that would be filled with more podiums and medals. But at that moment, she reflected on it all.
“It was a slow process to getting back up,” Long, who wants to compete in the 2024 Paris Paralympics, said. “That first gold in Tokyo reminded me that despite having moments of doubt, I got here again. And that right there is a success.”