BY MIKE WATKINS//Special Correspondent
There was a time, in fact, when the 2004 Paralympic gold medalist wasn’t even sure Phelps knew her name.
But now that she has beaten him and a host of other top American amateur athletes for the AAU's 2007 Sullivan Award, she’s hoping that has all changed.
“When I was 12, we were both training at his North Baltimore club, and I saw him swimming across the pool,” said Long, a 15-year-old high school freshman who is home-schooled by her mom. “I really wanted to meet him but didn’t get to. Hopefully, I will get to one day.”
Considering all she has overcome in her young but challenging life, getting the opportunity to meet one of her swimming idols should be a piece of cake for Long.
Born in Siberia, Russia without the bones in her lower legs – fibulas, ankles, heels and most of the other bones in her feet – long spent her infancy in an orphanage.
But when Beth and David Long wanted more children and feared they couldn’t have them biologically, they went looking to adopt a child, specifically one with a disability.
They learned about a baby with leg abnormalities living in a Russian orphanage, saw her picture and knew right away she had to become part of their family.
“When we saw her picture, we instantly fell in love with her and knew we could give her a good life in America,” said David, who also adopted a 3-year-old boy from the same orphanage along with Jessica. “We always wanted a large family, and even though Jessica came with a disability, anyone who has ever met her knows it is nothing more than a physical abnormality. She’s never let it hold her back from trying or doing anything. She’s truly an inspiration.”
Jessica came to the United States at 13 months and had her lower legs amputated five months later. She took up gymnastics at age four, but found it difficult and often painful doing the jumps and flips with her prosthetic legs.
A non-impact sport like swimming, which she started as a toddler in her grandparents’ backyard pool, definitely proved a better fit.
“I absolutely love swimming. I always have,” said Jessica, who swims between 5,000 and 6,000 yards, six days a week. “Even when I’m not swimming, I’m most likely thinking about it. I didn’t swim with a club until I was around 10, when my grandmother called and signed me up. My family has always been very supportive of my swimming.”
When Jessica traveled to New York last month for the announcement of the Sullivan Award, the top honor given to by the Amateur Athletic Union to an amateur athlete in the United States each year, her dad traveled with her. During past trips, including the one to the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, her entire family went to root her on, and at least one of her parents or siblings (she has five) usually travels with her.
Because no Paralympic athlete had ever won the Sullivan Award, and because of the tough competition for the award, which included Phelps and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, among others, Jessica and David were both surprised when her name was called.
“It’s such a huge honor to be in the same category with (Mark) Spitz, (Janet) Evans and Michael (Phelps),” Jessica said. “It’s a really good feeling to be the first Paralympian to win. To be honest, I’m still a little surprised.”
The holder of 34 American and 16 world records, Jessica now has her sights set on earning another spot on the 2008 Paralympic team, which will compete in Beijing after the Olympic Games next summer.
As a 12-year-old, she won three gold medals and set two world records in Athens, despite having only swum competitively for a little more than a year.
In 2006, she dominated the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships in South Africa by winning nine gold medals and setting five world records. For her tremendous accomplishments, she was named the Paralympian of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
For the inspirational athlete from Maryland, every day she gets to leave behind her prosthetic legs and jump in the water is another perfect day in her otherwise very normal life.
“I’m still getting used to having young swimmers – both disabled and not – come up to me and tell me how much I inspire them or ask for an autograph, but it’s pretty cool,” Long said with a laugh. “I’ve always been very determined not to let anything keep me from doing something that I want to do, and I hope my example helps people – whether or not they’re disabled – realize they can do anything themselves.”