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Determination fuels an Olympic dream

For an hour and a half and 4,000 yards, pausing only to swig from her water bottle, Jessica Long swims. Butterfly, freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke - a workout she repeats four or five times a week. The 12-year-old Baltimore County girl radiates a spirit of determination.

"I am just in awe of Jessica," says Stephanie Weisenborn, the girl's coach. "You don't know she's a double amputee until she gets out of the pool."

Jessica has set 11 national and two Pan American records for disabled swimmers. Now she is training to take on some of the most gifted swimmers in the world.

She will travel in September to Athens, Greece, to compete in the Paralympics, a U.S. Olympic Committee-sanctioned international competition of elite athletes with disabilities.

In preparation for the trip, Jessica's focus and stamina will be further tested through the summer. Her workouts will be increased to eight or nine a week and the distance up to 6,000 yards each session, said her coach, Weisenborn, and Julie O'Neill, manager of the swim program for the U.S. Paralympics team.

Jessica, who lives with her family in Middle River, says she is driven to excel.

"You can say it's being tough, in a way," she says. "I want to show people I can do it even though I don't have my limbs."

Jessica, adopted as an infant by her parents from a Russian orphanage, was born without major bones in her lower legs. She required amputation of both legs below the knees when she arrived in Baltimore as a 1-year-old. She has had five subsequent surgeries to remove bone overgrowth in her knees.

She has worn prostheses since she was a little girl. Recently, Jessica was fitted for new legs that will cost $18,000, covered by her family's health insurance, and feature adjustable, carbon-fiber feet that will enable her to wear 2-inch heels.

Jason Seeberg, president of a prosthetics company in Abingdon and a former competitive swimmer, said he is financially backing the young athlete "because she has so very much promise." Seeberg will provide state-of-the-art "skin" for Jessica's new legs that will cost an additional $12,000 and feature details like toe prints and blood vessels. The new skin will also allow the young lady a touch of style - painting her toenails.

"Next year, she'll get her running legs," says her mother, Beth Long, who home schools Jessica, her brother Joshua, 14, and sisters Hanna, 7, and Grace, 5. Beth and her husband Steven, a designer for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., have two older children, Steven, now married, and Amanda, attending community college.

Joshua was adopted from the same orphanage in Irkutsk, Russia, as Jessica. Steve Long remembers it as a dreary building where babies wore pieces of torn towels for diapers. "They thought Pampers were a miracle," the father remembered.

Beth Long says, "We wanted to adopt, and when we saw a picture of little Jessica we fell in love. After Steve went to Russia, he told me about Josh, and we loved him too, and he and Jessica came into our family."

Jessica didn't begin swimming seriously until a couple of years ago. "She started as a fish and came out of my pool a mermaid," says her grandfather, Norman Councill, of Rosedale.

Beth and Steven Long stay busy getting Jessica to her training sites and meets. Early this summer, she worked out at Knight Diver, an indoor pool in Edgewood. Her "home" pool is at the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, where she competes against able-bodied swimmers for the Dundalk Eastfield Swim Club. In June and July, she will train at the Hillcrest Swim Club in Parkville.

Jessica established two of her latest records at a meet at the Naval Academy in June. Her more impressive performance was in April at the U.S. Paralympic trials at the University of Minnesota, and she was chosen for the team based on her performances. In Athens, she will compete against similarly disabled swimmers in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle. Other swimming classifications will include events for the blind, swimmers with spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy.

In August, Jessica will travel to the Olympic swimming center in Chula Vista, Calif., and train for two weeks before leaving the next month for the Paralympics.

While competing, she and her fellow athletes will stay in the Olympic Village until the games conclude Sept. 28.

The concept of the Paralympics was born after World War II, when combat veterans with spinal cord injuries competed. Today, the event has grown to include 22 sports, from archery to judo.

"Jessica is a great kid, and we are excited to have her nominated to the Paralympic team," says O'Neill, the manager for the Paralympics swim team.

She said that because of the girl's amputations she draws the majority of her propulsion from her upper body.

Unlike most swimmers, Jessica drops into the pool from the starting block rather than explode several body lengths into her lane. When she executes her turnaround at the wall, she pushes off with her knees.

"That's time that has to be made up," Weisenborn says. "But she has this determination. She'll look at an able-bodied swimmer beating her in the next lane, and she'll burst forward. She has to beat everyone."

Sometimes Jessica contends with awkward moments, like when strangers gawk as she attaches her prostheses to her knees after a meet. But she said such experiences usually don't matter to her.

"I don't mind if adults stare," Jessica said. "They should really know about my physical situation. Younger kids will sometimes tease me, and that bothers me a little, but eventually I don't care."

Her grandmother, Nancy Long, of Lutherville, says that Jessica "is comfortable as she can be. She has accepted how she is. She's learned to focus on what she has, not what she doesn't have."

While she is the picture of a motivated athlete in a swimming pool, Jessica is a typical, more-relaxed 12-year-old around the family's comfortable home on Bird River Road. She plays with her brother and sisters, sometimes prepares supper for them. She sees herself as one day being a model or a designer.

Jessica points to her collections of International Barbie Dolls and music boxes in her bedroom, which she keeps neat enough to pass a Marine Corps boot-camp inspection. A wall poster behind her bed shows two dolphins exploding from the water with the notation, "Dive into your dreams." She's been a cheerleader and enjoys showing off on the trampoline in her back yard.

Because of her nearly exclusive reliance on her upper body while swimming, it's not surprising Jessica has well-developed strength in her arms, shoulders, chest and back. To prove the point for a visitor, she challenged Joshua to an arm-wrestling match. Within 10 seconds, her older brother's arm was down.

"Hey, she's strong. What can I say?" Joshua said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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