With the trials for this year's U.S. Paralympic swimming team a little more than a week away, Jessica Long came home to Middle River one night after a recent practice and began to feel a shooting pain in her stomach. After going to bed that night, the pain intensified.
"It was the worst pain I had ever felt," Long recalled Friday.
That is saying a lot, considering what Long has endured in her life. Long was born without fibulas in either leg, and both of her legs were amputated below the knees when she was 18 months old - five months after she was adopted by a Baltimore family from a Russian orphanage.
Long, now 16, has spent her short life overcoming obstacles, growing in recent years into one of the world's most preeminent swimmers. She was honored as the winner of the 2006 Sullivan Award, given to the country's top amateur athlete.
When her appendix burst, it was more of a minor setback than a major diversion to her career.
While the emergency appendectomy and a four-day hospital stay prevented Long from competing in the recent U.S. swimming trials in Minneapolis, her past accomplishments helped Long gain a berth on the team going to Beijing later this year for the 2008 Paralympic Games.
Long was given one of the discretionary spots on the U.S. team based on the fact that she had won at least one medal in the previous world championships and had set a world record in at least one event in the previous year.
"I was really hoping that they were going to put me on the team," said Long, who won nine gold medals at the 2006 world championships in South Africa and is the world-record holder in 12 events (one as part of a relay). "I hoped that all that I have done would have been good [enough] to make the team."
Julie O'Neill, the senior director and coach of the U.S. Paralympic team, would not disclose how the discretionary spots are filled, but politics didn't enter the discussion when it came to Long. She is considered as much the face of U.S. swimming in the Paralympic world as Michael Phelps is for able-bodied athletes.
"Obviously she's been a great performer," O'Neill said. "She won seven gold medals in seven [individual] events two years ago, and she is ranked No. 1 in the world in a number of events. She's sitting in a very good position going into Bejing even with the appendectomy and losing a little training time right now."
Now that she's on the team, Long is hoping to repeat her South Africa performance in China.
"There's a little bit of pressure, but there's not much because I know how well I'm going to do. I know what I want to achieve, and I have my goals," said Long, who won three gold medals as a 12-year-old at the last Paralympic Games in 2004 in Athens, Greece. "I know I can do it. I know I can win the gold. There's no need to get nervous."
Long has become one of the best-known Paralympians in the world, along with American track standout Marlon Shirley. But Long realizes that compared to fellow swimmers such as Phelps - among the athletes she beat out for the Sullivan Award - her achievements have limited visibility.
"I hope people know who I am. I hope people know about Paralympics. I hope it gets more well known because of me, getting out there," Long said. "I think winning the Sullivan Award really helped. I think Paralympics should be on TV. We all have such cool stories about our disabilities, about how hard we train and how hard we try. There's nothing we can't do."