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Lifestyle

Paralympian Jessica Long goes gold-metal glam

AdoptionFamilyParalympic Games2012 Summer ParalympicsMichael PhelpsRalph Lauren

Jessica Long will tell you: After capturing even more Paralympic gold in London, she couldn't wait to get back to Baltimore for a table heavy with steamed crabs and a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

But these days, Long's reality is a touch more glamorous.

You can still find the swimmer at the movies in White Marsh, shopping at the Towson Town Center, getting wet at the Merritt Athletic Club. But Long's just as likely to be walking a red carpet somewhere in couture threads, juggling interview requests and considering lucrative opportunities.

This year she walked the red carpet at the ESPY awards, appeared in a much-aired Coca-Cola commercial, was named Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year, mingled with the president and first lady at the White House and pocketed the keys to Baltimore.

Recently — supposedly deep into her down time — she flew to Nebraska for a charity appearance and then hit California for an event put on by Visa, one of her sponsors, and then jetted off to New York for a black-tie swimming awards dinner.

"You train day in and day out. It's really awesome to come back home and be recognized for the hard work," Long says, in town for the briefest of layovers. "It's so nice to go to a friend's house and sleep over, stay up as late as I want."

Long's agenda for 2013 includes moving back to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she'll prepare for world championships, starting college, which will most likely involve a move back to Maryland, and traveling to Russia to finally meet the Siberian couple who gave her up for adoption as an infant — an opportunity that unfolded dramatically during the London Paralympics.

At this point in her career, Long's face is getting to be as recognizable as her story.

Marylanders Beth and Steve Long adopted her as an infant from a Russian orphanage. Long was born without bones in her lower legs and feet, and shortly after coming to America, both legs were amputated near the knee.

She grew up in Middle River, one of six children who learned to love the water in the backyard of her grandparents' Rosedale home.

Though she only began to take swimming seriously at 10, by 12 she was scooping up her first gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

London was the 20-year-old's third Paralympic triumph. She has 17 medals now, which she keeps in their velvet boxes, unceremoniously heaped together in a basket in her parents' home.

At home, she says she enjoys "just being a girl," going shopping, seeing movies, indulging in the ice cream that she swears off during training. Sometimes folks recognize her, but not always. If they do, that's great, and if they don't, she's happy to slip — at least for a while — back into ordinary life.

Despite what seem like daily overtures on Twitter, Long says she's too busy for dating now.

Long's sponsors include some of the country's biggest companies, including Ralph Lauren, Coke, Visa, Speedo, Oakley, Topps and prosthetics-maker A Step Ahead. And they all want a little of her time.

Long says she's seriously considering starting college soon, which could very well mean moving back to Maryland full time and enrolling in one of the state's schools. University of Maryland is one option, she says. Careerwise, she wants to share her story and inspire people — perhaps with motivational speaking.

And if she's attending college here, she'll be training here. Long already has her eye on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and figures if she's in town, she might look into training at Michael Phelps' old stomping grounds, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

As arduous as training is, Long's become a bit of a junkie for the applause, the gold — just winning.

"It's an amazing feeling. I'm not ready to say goodbye to it," she says. "Rio is definitely happening."

And in the middle of all of it will be some personal business a long time coming.

It all started when Long told a Russian reporter, months before the Paralympics, that she hoped to find her birth parents.

She loves the Longs as much as a child can love her parents, and admires them for having the "courage and strength" to adopt a baby with physical problems. But she never looked like the rest of her family and always wondered.

"It's wanting to know where I came from," she says.

The TV news team took it on themselves to do it for her. And then told her three days into one of the world's highest-profile events.

She was happy and confused, anxious and even a little angry.

"Here I was, in the biggest meet of my life, and the last thing I wanted to think about was all of this. It all came crashing down on me."

They wanted to capture her reaction on camera. They wanted her to commit to a televised reunion in Russia.

She only wanted her concentration back. And to know if any of it was even legitimate.

"Do I let myself go and get really excited about this? Is this even real?"

Long's birth parents are Natalya and Oleg Valtyshev. Her mother was an unwed teenager when she gave her up, eventually married her birth father and had more children, including a girl, who's now 19 and looks a lot like Long. They also had twins, who are now 13.

Her mother still refers to her as Tatiana, the name she gave her before letting her go.

According to London's Daily Mail, Long's birth mother is now 38 and regrets giving up her daughter.

"I feel so sorry," she told the paper in September. "At that time there was some fear. I got scared. I had to leave her behind. But I did think that I would take her back."

At one point, "they were planning to come back and get me," Long says. "But I couldn't imagine not growing up in Baltimore and having my family. She did the right thing, and I feel it was all part of God's plan."

When Jessica used to talk about meeting her birth parents, Steve Long worried about her getting hurt — that she'd find people who didn't meet her expectations or find no one at all. But he's happy for his daughter now, fine for her to meet this Russian couple who strike him as hardworking and sincere.

"I think it's interesting for her to fill in that missing piece in her life," he says. "I'm all for that if it kind of completes what she's been thinking and helps her move on with her life."

Long plans to meet the Valtyshevs in Siberia next summer. She's exchanged a few messages with her sister on Facebook. That's about all she's ready for — for now.

"I just need some time," she says. "We're still trying to figure out who we trust there."

The reunion will likely be filmed, to become part of a documentary about Long's life. The way she sees it, the story will have its share of drama — adversity, achievement, all that.

She says: "It's not a bad ending."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Jessica Long

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Jessica Long

Born: Feb. 29, 1992, in Irkutsk, Siberia; adopted at 13 months.

Lives: Middle River and Colorado Springs, Colo.

Education: Home-schooled

Medals: 12 Paralympic gold, three silver, one bronze

Twitter: @jessicalong

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