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Paralympic swimmer sets sights on gold

Paralympic GamesDining and DrinkingBars and ClubsClubs and AssociationsMichael PhelpsESPN

For 30 minutes they swim together, two strangers lapping the pool in adjacent lanes at the Merritt Athletic Club in Towson. Finally, the older woman climbs out and slumps on the deck, in awe of the teenager still plugging away.

"She just keeps going, doesn't she?" the woman says.

A man standing nearby nods.

"You know," he says, "she has no legs."

The woman's expression tells all.

Jessica Long has wowed another.

Today, Long, of Middle River, will try to wow the world at the XIII Summer Paralympics in Beijing - the Olympic Games for disabled athletes. Long, 16, who won three gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics and last year won the James E. Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete, will compete in a Michael Phelps-like seven events over nine days, determined to sweep them all.

Her bedroom is peppered with stuff bearing the number 7: computer screensaver, cell phone, mirror and ceiling.

"If [Phelps] can win eight golds, then I can take seven," she said. "I've been visualizing my races for months. His success made it that much more real for me."

You want real? Look at her legs. They stop just below the knees.

Born in Russia without ankles, heels and most of her foot bones, which would have left her unable to walk, she was quickly shunted off to an orphanage. Adopted at 13 months by a Baltimore couple, Long was flown to the United States where doctors found that their only option to fit her with prosthetics was to amputate both lower legs. All she recalls of the surgery is the doll her parents bought to prepare her for the aftermath. "They cut off the doll's feet and put casts on its legs," Long said.

Setback? Hardly. Quickly the youngster was up, scuttling around the house and climbing heaven-knows-where. "Once we found Jess on top of the refrigerator," said her father, Steve Long. "Still don't know how she got there."

In time, with the help of prosthetics, she competed in basketball, skiing, skating; cheerleading, rock-climbing and rollerblading.

But it was in the pool, without the artificial legs, that Long felt at ease. There, churning through the water on her stumps, she could be herself.

Mermaids don't need feet.

Butterfly, breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke - Long will swim them all in Beijing, competing against women of all ages with similar impairments.

Her goal - seven golds - is not far-fetched. In 2006, Long won nine events at the International Paralympic Committee Swimming Championships. Last year, she took six at the U.S. Paralympics Open.

Long has "a great chance to win seven," said Julie O'Neill, head coach of the U.S. Paralympics swim team. What she lacks in leg power, Long makes up for in savvy and upper-body strength, the coach said.

"Jess has a relentless spirit," said Andrew Barranco, her personal coach for seven years. "She's out to prove that she can compete at high levels because people would doubt her. Part of her drive is to prove them wrong."

On she has toiled, for 16 hours a week in the pool, envisioning that cache of gold. Her favorite song? "Just Keep Swimming," from Finding Nemo.

Long's mastery - she holds 15 paralympic world records - earned her the coveted 2007 Sullivan Award. Runners-up included Phelps and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, now a quarterback for the Ravens.

Though both Long and Phelps hail from Baltimore County, they have met just once, at last year's ESPN ESPY Awards, where each was honored.

"I was kind of nervous. I mean, I'd wanted to meet [Phelps] for so long," she said. "I'd always thought it would be cool to do a lap with him, if he agreed not to kick. But I wasn't going to say, 'Let's race.'"

She settled for a photo of Phelps and herself.

Accolades don't faze her. "Awards are cool, but I'm just swimming, doing what I love," she said.

Her life could have been so different had she not been whisked out of a dingy Siberian orphanage on a wintry day in 1993 by Steve Long, a supervisor for Baltimore Gas & Electric.

Long and his wife, Beth, already had two children. They knew baby Jessica came with baggage. They'd seen her photograph, met with doctors, eyed the future. "We prayed a lot before we went forward," Steve Long said. He flew halfway across the world to adopt the tiny blond infant as well as a 3-year-old whom they named Joshua.

"It was snowing the day I carried Jess out of the only place she'd ever known - an old wooden building with babies three to a crib, no diapers and toilets that didn't flush," he said. "As we left, her eyes were full of wonder."

But as she grew, she found that not everyone accepted the little girl who looked different.

"I'd take my [prosthetic] legs off to play on the jungle gym," Long said. "I hated it when adults whispered to their kids to take a look at me."

She has never indulged in self-pity. At age 10, she was approached by a girl on the playground.

"I feel sorry for you," the girl said.

Long bristled. "Don't," she said.

"I do."

"Well, DON'T!" snapped Long, who turned and stomped off. On her knees.

"I don't like people judging me. I'm a pretty cool girl," she said recently during a break from practice at the Merritt club.

"I'm very comfortable with my disability. When I come home, I take off my legs like others do their shoes. I used to do somersaults, flipping from room to room to get around the house."

With her legs, she stands 5 feet 10. Long can detach one in seconds and does so for a reporter. There's an upside to wearing prosthetics, she said slyly, placing her right leg on a table:

"I don't have to bend down to paint my toenails."

At present, Long has four sets of legs, stashed in a hamper in her bedroom. Four years ago, she packed a spare pair for the Paralympic Games in Greece. Not this time, she said. Not with all of the hardware she expects to win.

"Packing up in Athens, I had so many victory flowers that I couldn't close my suitcase," she said. "I was jumping up and down on it, trying to squeeze my legs in."

Friends say they are envious of Long's ability to change her height on impulse. "They say that if I'm dating someone short, I can wear short legs and if I'm dating someone tall . . ."

In truth, Long seldom dates.

"No boyfriend," she said. "I swim. I sleep."

Home-schooled along with her five siblings, she spends her spare time "watching chick flicks and Grey's Anatomy" and answering fan mail from girls like Amy, a 12-year-old in Michigan who failed to make the U.S. swim team.

"Amy's stumps are longer than mine, but she looks up to me," Long said. "I tell her, 'just keep swimming.' "

When she returns from Beijing, Long could face more surgery. In a cruel irony of her condition, Long's tibias - the bones below her knees - continue to grow as part of her skeletal maturation and must be trimmed from time to time, lest the bony overgrowth puncture her skin.

Long has undergone 20 such operations so far, most recently in January. "Each surgery is almost like having an amputation," her father said. "But Jess has a pretty high pain tolerance."

Feel sorry for her? Don't.

"Would I want my legs back? I wouldn't change a thing," she said. "I want to write a book, something inspirational, about not giving up. And I want to swim [competitively] as long as possible.

"My parents keep saying, 'Jess, one day someone will beat you in the pool.' "

Her response?

"Not gonna happen."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Paralympic GamesDining and DrinkingBars and ClubsClubs and AssociationsMichael PhelpsESPN
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