“I don’t look at myself as disabled. There really isn’t anything I can’t do. I may have a little extra trouble or take a little extra time, but I can do it. I think you’re disabled if you have a bad attitude, and you don’t try.”
Jessica Long isn’t kidding. The 20-year-old Paralympic swimming sensation, who has been described by the Paralympic swim team manager as “fearless,” will try pretty much anything. She enjoys gymnastics, ice skating, basketball, bowling, and rock climbing. She laughs when she tells the story about how she tried skiing, but both of her legs came off. She was a cheerleader in high school. Long also models, for which she has a special pair of legs molded from her sister’s legs. Her rock-climbing legs have knee covers that will “catch” if she starts sliding backward. She also has running legs, high-heel legs, and what she calls “beat-up legs” for working out.
Long’s life has been a mix of courage and determination, with Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as its sound track. She was born in Irkutsk, Russia, with lower leg anomalies (a number of the bones were missing) and put up for adoption by her birth mother. Long was adopted at 13 months by an American couple; when she was 18 months old, both of her legs were amputated below the knee.
Making it look easy
She has confounded all the experts from the start. Long’s parents were told following the amputations that she would have to be taught to walk when fitted with prosthetic legs. Instead, Long got up on her own and just started walking. What’s more, everything she learned, she learned quickly. Long began swimming competitively when she was 10; two years later, she won three Gold Medals at the Paralympic Games in 2004 in Athens. She was the youngest member of the U.S. team.
“Things may be easier for me in some ways, because this is all I’ve ever known,” says Long. “The more time you spend with your legs, the harder it would be to lose them. Still, I’ve had to work that much harder to be equal with the other kids. And there were the revision surgeries every year to cut back the bone until I stopped growing. It’s painful. The recovery time is three to four weeks, and if you get an infection, it takes longer.”
Another source of pain, she recalls, was badly fitting prostheses. “It’s one thing to be an amputee,” says Long. “It’s another thing just to hurt.” In 2009, Long’s mother searched online and found A Step Ahead, a small business in Hicksville, New York, that specializes in prosthetics and orthotics. “Right off the bat, I fell in love with the people there,” says Long. “The fit was right, and now they custom-make all of my legs.” The new legs freed Long from pain, changing her life and her athletic career. The company may be part of her cheering section, but their quality products made her one of its fans, too.
On the plus side, Long says, she has “really, really long arms” that give her a lot of pull in the water. Until about a year and a half ago, she trained regularly against able-bodied swimmers—and generally won. “That’s where my drive came from,” she says. “It helped my self-esteem if I could beat them.”
Coming by her competitive drive honestly
She gives additional credit to her parents for her competitive spirit. They owned two businesses—a food stand and a day care center—when she was young, and Long saw that the vision and discipline required to succeed in sports is also present in small business ownership. “My parents raised me to be the way I am now,” she says. “They taught me never to give up.”
Long’s competitive drive has made her the world record holder in 20 events. Four years after her Athens debut, she won four Gold Medals, one Silver Medal, and one Bronze Medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. A year earlier, she had won the Amateur Athletic Union’s Sullivan Award. She was the first Paralympic athlete ever to win that award.
After London, Long’s plan is to go to college, then start businesses of her own. “I would like to have a fashion line,” she says, “write books, and do some motivational speaking—anything related to sports. Right now, swimming is my job.”
Long believes that her sports training will also prove beneficial in her future business career. “You really have to work hard to always be at your best,” she says. “You see that with people who are successful, whether in business or athletics. They work hard at what they are best at. If you don’t, you can’t be successful. But if you truly give it your all and don’t give up, you’ll be a champion.”