From Siberia to swimming stardom: This is Paralympic star Jessica Long’s amazing story
It may seem odd that one of the major stars to emerge from the NFL Super Bowl in 2021 was a Paralympian.
But when swimmer Jessica Long appeared on the TV screen, millions of hearts and minds were immediately captured.
In a powerful 60-second Toyota advert, viewers heard how the 13-time Paralympic champion was put up for adoption as a baby, and found a new home months before she had her legs amputated below the knees.
“It won’t be easy, but it’ll be amazing,” were the words from Long’s adoptive mother.
That tagline is the perfect synopsis for the life of Long, who has triumphed over unbelievable odds to become one of the world’s finest athletes.
The 29-year-old, who is sometimes referred to as ‘Aquawoman’ or ‘The Michael Phelps of Paralympic swimming’ has won 13 Paralympic gold medals, and will hope to add to that tally at her fifth Games in Tokyo, in 2021.
Long’s incredible Paralympic medal tally stands at 23, and she is the second-most successful American Paralympic swimmer ever.
The only American in her sport with more medals is Trischa Zorn, who has 55 overall and is considered the greatest Paralympian of all time.
Outside of the pool, Long has become a role model, a social media star, and dabbles in modelling and broadcasting too.
Here, we take a closer look at the remarkable story of an athlete, whose inspirational message transcends well beyond sport.
Adoption, and becoming a mermaid
Long’s story began over 9,000km from the United States in Siberia, Russia.
She was born with a rare condition called fibular hemimelia, meaning she didn’t have most of the bones in her feet. Fearing that she wouldn’t be able to care for her daughter adequately, Jessica’s 16-year-old mother was persuaded to put her in an orphanage.
At 13 months, Americans Beth and Steve Long adopted Jessica and a boy called Joshua, who began a new life in Baltimore, Maryland.
Jessica’s legs were amputated at 18 months in order to improve her mobility with prosthetic legs. In total, she needed 25 surgeries.
Long’s adoptive parents encouraged her to play sports like gymnastics, ice skating, rock climbing, and trampoline.
She also liked to swim at her grandparents’ house, mostly to pretend she was a mermaid.
'When I’m in the pool, I never really feel like I’m missing my legs,” she would say.
But she soon started excelling in the water, and that success proved to be cathartic.
“I literally only got into swimming because I was a very angry child!” she told SwimSwam podcast.
“It was where I let out my anger and frustration, but it was also where I felt really free and capable.
“My childhood was hard and painful. There are spots of my childhood I don’t remember because I was going in and out of surgery so much.”
“There was no one that could tell me why. Why I was born without my legs, why I was adopted, or even the fact that my birthday was on a leap year!" - Jessica Long
“Anger was a very comfortable emotion for me. But then I started to love it and it became a passion.”
Early success and training with Michael Phelps
Soon enough, Long was selected as Maryland’s Female Swimmer of the Year with a Disability.
Aged 12, she made her Paralympic Games debut at Athens 2004, and took home three gold medals.
She had only been swimming competitively for two years. Even the great Michael Phelps - who she went on to train with before Rio 2016 - could only dream of an achievement like that.
“I had no idea how incredible that achievement was until recently,” she said. “How did I go 1:09 as a tiny 12-year-old?
“But training with Phelps and Bob Bowman was the moment that I had become an elite athlete and not just a Paralympic swimmer.”
Developing an eating disorder
Up until the Rio Games, Long’s swimming career had continued to skyrocket year-upon-year.
But the physical toll of swimming at such a high level from such an early age had started to catch up with her.
She won one gold, three silvers, and a bronze in Brazil. For most athletes, this would be considered an astounding achievement, but for Long, it was a below-par performance. She was physically, and mentally, exhausted.
“Rio was really terrible, pretty much everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” she told Paralympic.org.
“I was emotionally drained and mentally broken, and I had developed a really bad eating disorder. I’d lost a coach six weeks before I was supposed to go out there, stuff with classification felt heavy, and I had shoulder injuries. I lost about 20 pounds and I just wasn’t me."
As a Paralympic athlete, Long loved the fact that she was imperfect. But after so much success, she struggled with her identity as she was not performing in the water.
“It’s really easy to say that a gold medal doesn’t define you, but when you are used to a certain level of performance and then you don’t have it, it’s really easy to feel that lack of worth.”
Long knew that she didn’t want to retire, so she decided to scale-back her training schedule while also going to therapy.
She also started coaching a local girls’ swim team, which allowed her to stay in touch with the sport, without the physical rigours.
“The only disability in life is a negative attitude”
Part of Long’s healing process was to realise that she was so much more than an athlete.
Success in the pool, combined with her trials and tribulations in life, meant that she was an inspiration to people well beyond the confines of her sport.
"Winning gold medals is incredible and obviously it's what I want to do, but there's something so special about having a little girl who has just lost her leg from cancer come up and tell me I'm her hero," she told People.
Her new mission was to demystify disability, and encourage all people to thrive.
Her social media profiles have swelled with her achievements, and she uses that platform to shine a light on what people with disabilities can achieve.
"It took me years to realise that if I act ashamed and I try to hide then people kind of react the same way," she added. "But if I wear my shorts or a cute summer dress and I show off my legs and I'm willing to talk about it, people are engaged and they want to know about my story.
“The only disability in life is a negative attitude.”
The swimming star works with the Make-A-Wish foundation, and also speaks to kids in schools.
“While a lot of people can’t relate to being an amputee, the pain I’ve suffered with my identity and abandonment has allowed me to connect with many others.”
Meeting her birth parents
A shining example of Long’s positivity came in 2013.
Fresh from a stellar London 2012 Paralympics, where she claimed five gold medals, she travelled to Russia to meet her biological parents.
Natalia and Oleg Valtyshev had no idea their daughter was a world champion.
“When I first see my Russian family, I want them to know that I’m not angry with them, that I’m not upset that they gave me up for adoption,” Long said in a subsequent film, that was released during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“I think that was really brave, and I don’t know what I would have done if I was in her situation, at 16 and having this disabled baby that they knew that they couldn’t take care of. I want to tell her that when I see her that, if anything, I have so much love for her, my mom, because she gave me life.”
Long also got the chance to meet her three sisters, one of whom was diagnosed with infantile cerebral paralysis.
Redemption in Tokyo and future hopes
After taking some time out in 2019 to get married, Long is making the most of the coronavirus-enforced delay to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics to get back into her best shape for the Games in 2021.
“I wasn’t satisfied with my performance in Rio,” she said. “I was very burnt out. But I continued to push through the struggles, so here I am and I’m really looking forward to Tokyo.
“When I’m at my best, I feel unstoppable.”
Regardless of her performance in Tokyo, she has already won her mission to show what people with disabilities, and anyone from tough beginnings, can achieve.
After swimming, she has set her sights on becoming the first woman with amputated legs to complete an ironman triathlon. And it’s likely she’ll succeed there too.