A Fish In Water

Double amputee Jessica Long found a home in the water setting nine world records and 30 American records. This summer she will take those skills out of the pool and to the wall at the O&P Extremity Games.

By Tim McManus

June 15, 2006

oandpWhen Jessica Long made the turn for home in the 100-meter freestyle at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece 2 years ago, she was in fourth place. She did not know how far behind she was or how many swimmers she trailed, but she knew that it was unacceptable.

With 20 meters left, she knew exactly where she stood. Jessica looked into the next lane and saw the feet of her chief rival. For most people, second would have been a position to cherish, considering the circumstances.

The 100 meters was Jessica’s first event in the Paralympics and in a sport she had only been pursuing competitively for less than 2 years. Because of that Jessica was given one of the lowest seeds in the competition. And the feet she was looking at belonged to world record holder Keren Or Leibovitch of Israel. A second place finish would be the surprise of the meet. A first would be unthinkable.

The unthinkable happens
That is what most people would have thought. That is not Jessica Long. Instead, Long glanced at Leibovitch’s churning feet kicking water into her face and thought, “unacceptable.”

“I thought, ‘No! ‘I did not come all this way to get second,’” Jessica said, her voice morphing from teenage girl sweet to adult defiance. “I came here to win and set records.”

Jessica powered through the last few strokes and reached for the wall. She looked up at her rival, and then glanced at the scoreboard. After a painstaking few seconds, the numbers flashed. Jessica had won gold by two one-hundredths of a second. That was not the only surprise: Jessica’s time was a new Paralympic record.

It was not the last one she would set in Athens. Jessica, then 12 years old and the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympics team, would also set a record in the 400 meter freestyle and was a member of the winning 4x100 relay team. Jessica left Athens with three gold medals and two Paralympic records.

There was one person who should not have been surprised: her father, Steve Long. Before leaving their Baltimore home, Jessica predicted what she would accomplish.

“She told me that she was going to win medals and set records,” Steve said. “I tried to set her expectations lower and tell her we were so proud of her just competing, but she would not hear it.

“When she gets an idea about something, it is hard to talk to her out of it.”

Love at first sight

Dad should have known by then that just getting by would not be enough. Jessica was born Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova in Irkutsk, Russia. She was born without fibulas, ankles, heels and most of the other bones in her feet. When she was 18 months old both of her legs were amputated below the knees.

Jessica had won gold by two one-hundredths of a second. That was not the only surprise: Jessica’s time was a new Paralympic record. 

Jessica’s parents adopted her as an infant. The family had been looking to adopt from several different countries, but when they saw a picture of her, it was love at first sight. Steve and Beth, Jessica’s mother, ended up also adopting their son Joshua, now 16, from the same orphanage. The Longs now have six children ages 23 to 7.

From the beginning, Jessica was an active child.

“She used to bounce around the house on her knees,” Steve said. “I would worry about that.”

He worried even more when she took up gymnastics. The events took a pounding on her knees. Her parents wanted her to try something lower impact that she could do without wearing prostheses. So they took her to a team at the Dundalk Eastfield Swim Club.

A passion is born
“The first day I did not think I was going to make it across the pool,” Jessica said. “We tried the butterfly stroke and I could not do it.”

But she also decided she loved it. Jessica worked hardest at the strokes with which she was uncomfortable, and soon developed the upper body strength to compete with her team against able-bodied swimmers.

“I do not quit. I hate it,” Jessica said.

Before long, Jessica and her coaches were thinking about the Paralympics. The match between Jessica and the pool has been perfect. Since the Paralympics, Jessica has gone on to own nine world records and 30 American records. Jessica has her sights set on Beijing in 2008.

At 12 years old, Long set the world record in the 400 meter freestyle. Long has her sights set on competing at the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. 
Photos courtesy of JessicaLong.org 

Fish out of water

But this summer she is going to try something drastically different. Jessica will compete in rock climbing at the O&P Extremity Games, a 3-day series of competitions for amputees to be held at the Orlando Watersports Complex.

Jessica will wear prosthetic legs, which are custom-designed and fitted by Jonas Seeberg, CP, a prosthetist at Real Life Prosthetics in Abingdon, MD. The legs, which Jessica has not tried yet, will be specifically for rock climbing and athletic training.

“Climbing just seemed like something I could do with my upper body strength,” Jessica said. “It is a cool challenge.”

While Jessica will be competing against athletes with more climbing experience, anyone tempted to write off her chances needs only to look at her performance in Athens.

Remember, she does not come to finish second.

Tim McManus is a correspondent for O&P Business News.
Copyright 2005, SLACK Incorporated.