After an intense training session at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, 23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long gets out of the pool and sends a quick text to her teammate Haven Shepherd.
“How are Becky and Bridget today?” Long types.
“They are good! How are Mary-Kate and Ashley?” Shepherd responds.
Long and Shepherd are referring to their legs. Dubbed their “nubs,” both athletes are bilateral amputees and are the only people they know to give endearing nicknames to their legs.
“Our nubs are identical,” Long said. “So my left one is my shorter, fat one and my right one is skinnier, and longer. Just a little and so are hers.”
These two women share a friendship that began when Shepherd was a young girl. Now 18, Shepherd is in Tokyo for her first Paralympic Games while Long, now 29 years old, makes her fifth appearance in the summer game as the second-most decorated U.S. Paralympic swimmer in history. Over the last 10 years, Long and Shepherd learned their stories are more similar than how it appears on the surface.
Both were adopted—Shepherd at 20 months old from Vietnam and Long at 13 months old from Russia—but the stories of how Long and Shepherd lost their legs are different. Long was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition that causes the lower leg to not have some of the key bones it needs in order to help a person stand up and walk. Long’s legs were amputated from the knee down at 18 months old and she’s had 25 surgeries since the initial amputation.
Shepherd, on the other hand, was born in Vietnam. Her parents, who had Shepherd while married to other people, were poor and living in a small hut. Afraid and hopeless in their circumstance, Shepherd’s father brought home bombs. He strapped one to himself, one to Shepherd’s mother, their young baby in between them. Both parents died, but Shepherd survived the blast as she was flung out the front door with burns and shrapnel embedded in her body. She was rushed to the hospital by her biological grandmother and had her legs amputated that night.
Seven years later, Long met Shepherd at an event hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a group that makes prosthetics and other pieces of equipment for people with physical disabilities more accessible to help promote an active lifestyle.
“It was very evident at the gala that everyone knew Haven and Haven knew everyone,” Long said. “I just remember watching this little girl and it was one of the very first times that I saw another bilateral amputee. Right away, I was just like, ‘this girl is electric.’ ”
Shepherd, who attended the event wearing a tutu and her signature Converse sneakers, recalls a photo she took with Long that night.
“It’s definitely very weird to see some pictures of us from when I was 8 years old,” Shepherd said. “Now we’re teammates. It’s very odd to me, but I just look at Jessica like a big sister. She’s always looking out for me. She always wants the best for me.”
Shepherd didn’t take to swimming instantly; she started her adaptive athletic career running track, but soon realized it wasn’t for her. When she was 10 years old, she started swimming competitively and hit the professional circuit shortly thereafter. In 2016, Shepherd competed at trials for the Rio Paralympics at 13 years old, but didn’t qualify. Five years later, Shepherd is ready for a chance at a Paralympic title.
The road to the podium for Shepherd will be met by Long, who will be competing in her fifth Paralympic games. Long made her olympic debut at age 12 in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, winning three gold medals along the way. Before Tokyo, Long had 13 gold medals, six silver and four bronze.
“I don't really see [Long] as a competitor,” Shepherd said. “I know that Jessica will always be the best and that's what she expects. I'm just so happy to be in her shadow and [to have] seen her journey, and getting to be alongside her most big races.”
The duo will swim against each other in two events; the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter breaststroke. Shepherd and Long are both classified as S8, SM8, and SB7 swimmers, which is how World Para Swimming determines where to place which athlete in order to keep competition fair.
The letter indicates what kind of stroke the swimmer will be doing—“S'' signifies freestyle, backstroke or butterfly, “SB” is breaststroke, and “SM” is individual medley. Any swimmer in an S, SM or SB classification with a number one through 10 denotes that they have a physical impairment. The lower the number, the more severe the impairment is.
Prior to the Paralympic trials, Shepherd was feeling unsure about her race times. According to Long, trials was the first time they had raced in almost a year and a half because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long recalls Shepherd asking if she thought she had any chance of making the Paralympics, and it was time for Long to step into her “big sister” shoes.
“I'll never lie to her, but I was like, ‘It's going to be really, really hard. Like, these next six weeks before trials, you're going to have to really, really focus and work so, so hard,’ ” says long. “And it was just kind of a sweet, cute, intimate moment between us. Not everyone becomes a Paralympic athlete or a Paralympian. So that's something that Haven can add to her title for the rest of her life.”
With both swimmers competing in Tokyo, Long is excited to have Shepherd as a teammate, and Shepherd is ready for her chance on the big stage.
Even though Long and Shepherd will be competing against one another, the duo will always be friends and have a connection that not many have—an experienced Paralympian and a young hopeful looking to land a spot on the podium with her mentor, and their identical nubs.
Mackenzie Meaney is a contributor for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.
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