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Paralympic champion Jessica Long left home to find way to London

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For the first time in her memory, Jessica Long dreaded swimming.

With high school coming to an end, her friends cut loose -- bonfires, movie nights. It all sounded so fun and Long, a seven-time Paralympic gold medalist, had to skip out so she could hit the pool at the crack of dawn.

"It was bad," she recalls two years later. "I wasn't happy."

Few could have guessed it given her bounty of medals, but Long felt she had failed at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. She had promised seven gold medals to anyone who would listen, plastering the number all over her bedroom in Middle River. So four golds, one silver and a bronze just didn't cut it.

On top of that, she was stagnating at her swim club in Towson, surrounded by younger, less competitive swimmers and a longtime coach who no longer knew how to push her.

So Long did what many teenagers do when they're ready to come of age: She left home.

Long, who had both lower legs amputated before age 2, moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she could practice with top-level swimmers and coaches sans distraction. Now on the cusp of her third Paralympics, which began Wednesday in London, she says the decision ended her malaise.

"The first week of training there," she says, "I fell in love with swimming all over again."

The results speak for themselves. Long, 20, set four world records in 2011 and was named female disabled swimmer of the year by Swimming World magazine At the same time, she became one of the country's leading faces for the Paralympic movement, securing an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola and winning an award at ESPN's ESPY ceremony.

In London, she'll swim as many as nine events, beginning with Thursday's 400-meter freestyle. Long learned her lesson in 2008 and hasn't publicly shared her goals for the meet. "I'll just say I plan to bring home a lot of hardware," she says.

Long's mother, Beth, says there's little doubt Jessica wants gold in each and every race.

It has always been that way, ever since the Longs flew to Russia to pick up their adopted daughter when she was 13 months old. Long was born without ankles, heels and most of her foot bones. To give her a shot at walking with prosthetics, doctors told the Longs they would have to amputate her legs below the knees.

"We were worried what capabilities she would be left with," says her father, Steve, a supervisor at Baltimore Gas & Electric.

As soon as the toddler was fitted with prosthetics, however, she stood and tried to walk. As she grew older, God forbid one of her five siblings try to beat her out the front door for a family outing.

"She just likes to win," Beth says. "A lot."

"She always wanted to be up to par with the able-bodied kids," adds Steve.

The Longs first put Jessica in the water at her grandmother's backyard pool in Rosedale. She never wanted to get out. She felt a physical freedom that she couldn't replicate on land.

The Longs had never heard of the Paralympics when Jessica started to take the sport more seriously at age 10. She didn't always win her races against able-bodied peers, so they had no idea she might be world class until an onlooker mentioned that her times might make her a Paralympic contender.

Neither she nor her parents could quite believe it when two years later, at age 12, she won three gold medals at the Athens Paralympics.

Over the next four years, Long evolved from precocious newcomer to established star, setting more than a dozen world records and beating able-bodied standouts, including Michael Phelps, for the 2007 Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete.

She did it all from Towson's Merritt Athletic Club, under the watchful eye of Andrew Barranco, the only coach she had ever known.

With so much momentum, why wouldn't she win seven gold medals at the 2008 games in Beijing?

To the outside world, she succeeded brilliantly at those games. But her parents saw the look of stunned pain on her face as she took the medal stand clutching bronze instead of gold.

"We told her, 'Jess, it's OK,'" Beth Long remembers. "We just kind of kept reassuring her that she wasn't disappointing us, that anything she did was fine."

In her hypercompetitive soul, of course, everything wasn't fine. That ultimately led Long to her difficult decision to leave Barranco.

In the summer of 2010, she departed for Colorado Springs to work with new coach David Denniston, a Paralympic teammate in Beijing. Her parents supported the move, figuring it was equivalent to her peers departing for college

In Colorado, Long could train in an Olympic-sized, 50-meter pool. She began a thrice-weekly weightlifting regimen. Chefs tailored every meal to her nutritional needs.

"I've seen Fruit Loops maybe once since I've been out here," Long says wistfully of her favorite sugary cereal.

The last two years haven't been easy. On a typical day, Long swims two hours before breakfast, lifts weights at midday, swims again in the afternoon, often with weights or parachutes attached for strength-building, then winds down with yoga in the evening. She's generally tired enough to sleep at 7 p.m.

But she describes a new peace of mind, flowing from her iron-clad confidence that she has done everything she can to become a better swimmer.

"I love waking up every day, knowing I'm going to focus on just this," she says.

Her contentment goes beyond competitive success.

Long takes seriously the idea that she's a face for the Paralympics, which will gather a record 4,200 athletes from 165 countries in London. (Long will be joined on the U.S. team by two other Baltimore-area swimmers, Becca Meyers and Ian Silverman.)

She proudly shows off her body and loves the idea that a kid, faced with similar physical impairments, might want to follow her path.

"It's great to be No. 1, but it's even greater to inspire people," Long says. "I know that sounds cheesy, but it really is."

Her website testifies to her love of the spotlight. The first image is a glamour shot of her with nearly bare shoulders and hands sweeping provocatively over her golden mane. It's accompanied by a quote from Coco Chanel: "A girl should be two things: Classy and fabulous."

The Coca-Cola campaign, in which she was grouped with seven able-bodied Olympians, was a big deal to Long, a sign that she was no longer some niche inspiration. "It hit me at that moment that I had done it," she says. "I had made something of myself."

Coca-Cola marketing director Dina Gerson described Long as "a pretty young lady with a great image, a great story."

Her parents still speak with wonder of this little girl they picked out of a Siberian orphanage. Before she started swimming, they vacationed in Ocean City. Now, they routinely hop continents to catch her exploits.

"She's taken us on a journey," Beth says.

No matter what happens in London -- those who want to catch her races can watch live streams on Paralympic.org -- Jessica plans to focus on college for a year or two after the Paralympics. She looks forward to casual nights with friends, where she'll break a year-long ice cream fast to dig into her favorite flavors of Ben and Jerry's.

But eventually, she expects the ride to resume on her way to Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Paralympics.

"I think that will be the last one," she says. "But this has been my life since I was 10. I'm not ready to give it up."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

2012 Paralympics

When: Wednesday-Sept. 9

Where: London

Some local athletes to watch: Swimmers Becca Meyers, Ian Silverman and Brad Snyder, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who lives in Baltimore; Tatyana and Hannah McFadden, track; Kari Miller, sitting volleyball; Clark Rachfal, cycling; Trevon Jennifer, wheelchair basketball. If we're missing some names of local athletes, please email us at sports@baltsun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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