After a year's delay, and only 16 days after the conclusion of the Summer Olympics, all eyes will turn once again to Tokyo, which will become the first city to host the Paralympics for a second time. More than 4,350 athletes from 168 countries will contend across 22 sports in the 16th edition of the event, which is designed to drive awareness and change perceptions of those with disabilities and impairments. The competition for medals will be fierce.
Some people remember the stages of their lives by the schools they attended, the people they dated or the places they lived. Jessica Long can do it with Paralympics appearances. This will be her fifth—and she is only 29. Each one tells a story of how she became the person she is.
Long made her debut in 2004, at age 12, though she jokes about her attitude: “I thought I was 18.” She swam as if she was even older. She won three gold medals in her classification in freestyle, a stunning performance, but she also started to find an identity.
“I didn’t think anybody else in the entire world looked like me,” says Long, who was born with fibular hemimelia (a lack of bones in her lower legs and feet) and had both legs amputated below the knee at 18 months. “Everyone had legs. Even my younger sisters both had legs. It was hard to comprehend what I did wrong: Why me? Then I found out about the Paralympics. It really did completely change my life. It gave me confidence. For the first time in my entire life, I felt like I wasn’t alone.”
You can imagine what happens to a 12-year-old who thinks she is 18 and wins three gold medals: She becomes a 16-year-old who expects to conquer the world. Before leaving for Beijing in 2008, Long made it clear that she expected to match Mark Spitz’s haul of seven golds at the 1972 Olympics. Her Baltimore neighbors put the number seven on their lawns to show support. She had a keychain with a seven on it.
Long did win four golds in Beijing. But she says she “felt like my world was crashing” when she got bronze in the 100-meter breast-stroke. After the medal ceremony she found her parents in the stands, where everybody was celebrating her performance except her. Her parents, Beth and Steve, pulled her into a stairwell, where Jessica cried and asked them whether they still loved her. (They did!)
She thought about retiring, which seems hilarious to her now. Long was 16. But she was fighting burnout, and before she could continue swimming, she had to figure out why. One benefit of the four-year Paralympic cycle is that it gives athletes time to think.
Long decided to loosen the connection between how many gold medals she won and her self-worth. Before going to London in 2012, at age 20, she kept her goals to herself. Her neighbors could put whatever they wanted on their lawns. Long says, “I decided I was going to have a lot of fun.”
She did that. Long also won five golds, two silvers and a bronze. She did not ask her parents whether they still loved her. She had found the outlook she needed. The trick would be maintaining it.
Long showed up in Rio in 2016 with two injured shoulders, the result of overuse from swimming all those laps without legs. She hadn’t been able to practice as much as a world-class swimmer should. She decided that if she couldn’t be strong, she would be skinny. She developed an eating disorder.
“I look back at pictures, and I just look sick,” Long says. “In my mind, it was the thing that was going to make me fast.”
She still won a gold, three silvers and two bronzes, which is just preposterous under the circumstances. But when the Paralympics ended, Long was disappointed. She says now, “I had no control over my life.”
Long is in a much better place now. Since the last Paralympic Games she married Lucas Winters, a soccer coach. She started coaching, helping out at the St. Paul’s School for Girls in Brooklandville, Md. There she saw the spark in the young swimmers’ eyes and remembered why she fell in love with the sport.
Long was born in Siberia and lived in an orphanage before she was adopted by Beth and Steve and brought to the U.S. at 13 months old. She realizes now that she was lucky, but when she was little, she felt she had been rejected.
“I think that’s why I was so good,” she says. “Swimming with so much frustration and anger . . . I wanted to prove I was worth it.”
When Long arrives in Tokyo in 2021, at 29, she will know she is worth it, and not just because she is one of the most decorated athletes of this century. She would love to add to her Paralympic medal collection—she has 23, including 13 golds—but her happiness no longer hinges on her hardware.
“I’m so thankful I’m able to do what I do,” Long says. “Swimming, it’s the best job. I don’t have anything to prove—just that it’s possible. I know I’m enough with or without the gold medals. I just love to swim.”