By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, June 29, 2018
It was just a few years ago that Jessica Long was blissfully, almost naively, happy being Jessica Long Paralympic Champion.
She’d been to three Paralympics, brought home 13 gold medals and set three world records, won multiple world and National championships, was honored with the AAU James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, and was the most recognizable Paralympic swimmer (and athlete) in the United States (and possibly the world).
And then everything changed.
First, she traveled to her birth country Russia to meet her biological parents for the first time. Shortly after that, feelings of abandonment from being orphaned and then adopted resurfaced with new meaning and impact.
Next, she became more and more aware of what it meant to be an amputee, missing both legs below the knee due to a genetic abnormality at birth and being reliant upon prosthetic limbs (except in the water).
On top of that, while training for the 2016 Paralympics, her coach Bob Bowman and several of her North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates (namely Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt) moved to Arizona to live and train – leaving her behind without an invitation to join them or a coach to train her for Rio.
The end result for Long was what she calls an “awful, really rough” Rio Paralympic Games, even though she won six medals (one gold, three silver, two bronze) in the water. A classification change altered her competition, adding to her angst.
While that is a good haul for most swimmers, it was disappointing for the young woman who helped raise Paralympic swimming to new heights since she won three gold medals as a 12-year-old at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
The Rio Games – and everything else that happened – led her to reevaluate her life and take stock in what was most important and how much she still loved swimming and everything else about her life despite her trials and tribulations.
“I started seeing someone to talk about a lot of these things, and the reality of it all started to become more and more clear,” she said. “I think what happened was I had suppressed so many things about my life for many years, and everything just sort of popped up at the same time. It was almost the perfect storm. Unfortunately, most of it happened just before Rio.”
Along with her therapy sessions, something else proved therapeutically liberating for Long over the past three years: working with her sister Hannah on writing her autobiography Unsinkable.
A true labor of love, Long said the book, which is a mixture of past and current photos as well as short prose excerpts about Long’s life in and out of the water, brought her and her sister closer together and helped her deal with a lot of these recently surfaced events from her life.
It also gave her a voice to reflect upon her storied career, her many accomplishments and the legitimacy of Paralympic swimming – something she takes great pride in knowing she played a significant role in helping make a reality.
“I’ve had a lot to work through the past few years – especially since Rio – and working on this book with my sister was a great way to do that,” said Long, who was adopted from Russia by American parents as a baby.
“I’m still trying to figure out why everything happened about the same time, but I feel like it happened when it did for a reason. I wouldn’t have been able to process it if I had been younger, and I’m glad it didn’t happen when I was 40 or older. This is a good time in my life to process all of this.”
Long said along with getting even closer to her sister, she was surprised by the amount of time and energy that goes into producing a book.
After completing all the chapters and placing the photos, she knew quickly to whom she wanted to dedicate the book because he was the one who foretold its existence.
“I remember riding to practice one day – like I always did – with my dad, and he told me that one day I would have a book,” Long said. “It was a special time for us to bond, and he was the one who made me think that something like a book about my life was possible and important.
“After the book was released, I went to dinner with my parents and gave him a copy. I hadn’t told him ahead of time that I dedicated it to him. It was an amazing experience to share with him and something I was so glad to do to thank him.”
Long said they originally hired a different writer to help with the book, but when that didn’t work out, she suggested Hannah because she was the writer in the family and the one who always proofreads her stuff.
Hannah wrote two chapters, and the publisher liked her work so much, she co-authored the book with her older sister – the person she looked up to most of her life.
When the project was complete, it was Jessica who found a whole new level of appreciation and respect for her baby sister.
“I’m her big sister, but I found myself looking up to her during and after the project,” she said. “She has always been able to pull the most inconsistent thoughts out of me, and she went to Russia with me to meet my biological parents.
“When a first draft of the book came to us, her name wasn’t on the cover, and she asked if her name would be on there. I made sure that it was.”
Long said while Unsinkable is a photographic memoir of her life and everything she went through to get where she is today – the prominent face of Paralympic swimming – she hopes it’s also a story that lifts people up no matter their physical or mental circumstances and lets them know they can overcome anything.
Nothing is insurmountable – and everyone is unsinkable in their own way.
“I’ve always wanted people – swimmers, the media, fans, etc. – to take Paralympic swimming seriously because we put in the same amount of work as other swimmers no matter how fast or slow we go,” she said. “I’ve always worked really hard to prove to myself and everyone else that I was good enough, and I believe that I have. I always give 110 percent in practice and during games to prove that.”
She said she hopes that through her story – her successes, her struggles, her highs and her lows – that people also realize that, like them, she’s human and not a superhero despite all of her records and medals.
And with the 2020 Paralympics just two years away and Long feeling more and more in control of the past and recent changes in her life, she’s committed to swimming in Tokyo and then most likely moving on to the next phase of her life – whatever that might entail.
All she knows is that whatever she does post-swimming, she wants to stay close to the water professionally and continue to inspire and motivate others.
“If I were reading a book about my life, I would think this girl is pretty special, but no one knows how hard it is to walk in prosthetics until you do it,” she said. “For me, no matter how difficult things were at times, quitting was never an option.
“I hope people think after reading my book or seeing me in the news or wherever that this girl is brave and strong – and that they are brave and strong, too.”