Fresh off a dominating performance in the London Paralympics, swimmer Jessica Long on Tuesday morning shared stories of her decorated career with fifth-graders at Pinewood Elementary School in Timonium as part of their unit on overcoming obstacles.
"We train for four years and this is the time to relax and let everything heal," Long said. "But at the same time, it's exciting to go to schools or do events after London, just because it reminds me of why I love to do it."
"One of the little girls told me just as she was leaving that because of me, she's not going to give up anymore," Long said. "That's what it's all about. I love swimming, but I love knowing that kids see me as an inspiration."
During the hour-long assembly, students peppered Long with questions about her competitive career, other Olympians, and the birth defect that ultimate led to her legs being amputated below the knee.
Long qualified for her first Paralympics at age 12 after just two years of competitive swimming, and won three gold medals in Athens in 2004.
She qualified for Beijing in 2008 and went on to win six medals, including four golds. Five of her eight medals in London this past summer were gold as well, giving her a dozen gold medals at age 20.
At Pinewood, she told anecdotes both serious and silly, from all the hours of training and the feeling of gratification that came with the come-from-behind win in Athens for her first gold medal to the time she and her brothers put her prosthetic legs upside down in the sand to make it look like someone was buried.
The Paralympics champion also had no qualms showing off her prosthetic legs, which she said she had different sets of for different occasions, such as running, relaxing and wearing heels.
However, she wasn't always that comfortable.
"I used to not wear shorts in the summer time," Long said. "I just wanted to hide it and wear long pants. Then after the Paralympics, I saw how the other athletes handled missing an arm or a leg and they didn't care. That was what I needed to see."
The White Marsh native said she plans to spend about a month here in Maryland before returning to Colorado Springs to train for next year's world championships in Canada. After that, she'll return home and enroll in a local college.
Long had said recently that she keeps her medals in a basket at her house, and as a show of gratitude, the students gave her a large wicker basket to accommodate the new additions to her collections, as well as a $200 donation to the Missions Fellowship orphanage in India.
That gratitude the students showed was well earned on Long's part.
One student, Grace Cerf, said that many students thought it would be cool to simply be in the same room as someone as accomplished and well-known as Long, but they didn't get a superstar vibe off her.
"She just wants to be a regular person who followed her dreams and got this far," Grace said.
Grace, who has dyslexia, said she took Long's message as inspiration that she can achieve whatever she put her mind too, no matter the obstacles.
"I really want to share my story, but also make Paralympics more well known," Long said. "I think here in the U.S., we have a hard time accepting disabilities. That's why I think it's really good to share and let kids know that its not a disability, it's an ability. You have an ability to inspire others."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun