Baltimore, Maryland's Michael Phelps looks to win eight swimming gold medals at this year's Olympics in Beijing. But another Baltimore resident - Jessica Long - has gold medal aspirations that are just as high - she is aiming for seven individual swimming titles at the Beijing Paralympics in September (6-17). As VOA's David Byrd reports, the 16-year-old has come a long way from her native Siberia, and is now one of the leaders of the U.S. Paralympic team.
Jessica Long was born Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova in Irkutsk, Russia. As a baby, Jessica did not have most of the bones in her lower legs. She spent the first 13 months of her life in a Russian orphanage before Americans Steve and Beth Long adopted her.
The Longs had two children of their own, but difficulty in conceiving led them to adopt both Jessica and another child - her brother Joshua - from the orphanage. Though they were not physically related, Jessica and Joshua were both blonde and both came from the same facility to the Long's suburban Baltimore home at the same time.
At 18 months old, Jessica had both of her legs amputated below the knee. Though the doctors prescribed physical therapy, she never needed it - the young girl says on her Internet site that she was determined to do it on her own.
And she did. Jessica not only learned to walk, but also became involved in gymnastics at age four. She would spend her free time bouncing on a trampoline in her yard. But her parents became concerned that gymnastics might cause too much physical strain on her knees, so Jessica turned to swimming.
Her grandmother called a swimming club and signed Jessica up when she was 10 years old. By the time she was 12, Jessica was a Paralympian in Athens, the youngest member of the U.S. team. Her youth was not a disadvantage - Long won three gold medals in 2004 - two individual and one relay. The 16-year-old swimmer says she could hardly believe her eyes when she saw her name atop the standings in the 100-meter freestyle race.
"I remember seeing my competitor's feet, like she was ahead of me," said Jessica Long. "And I was like 'I did not come here to get second.' I kept swimming and when we were coming into the flags [near the end of the course] we were, like, neck-and-neck, like so close together. We hit the wall, and you had no idea who won. I was trying to breathe and then I looked up at the board and everyone was cheering, and I was like 'oh my gosh, my name's first!' I just out-touched her by maybe one tenth of a second or something."
Jessica Long says her first Paralympic title boosted her confidence and she went on to win the 400 meters freestyle, where she finished 15 seconds ahead of the second placed finisher, and in a relay when the U.S. team beat Canada and Australia.
By 2006, the 14-year-old Jessica won nine gold medals - seven individual events and two relay golds - at the World Championships in South Africa. She also set five world records at the same meet. Long was named the U.S. Paralympian of the year for 2006, as well as the 2006 disabled swimmer of the year by Swimming World Magazine.
Her success in the pool continued in 2007, where Long won six titles at the U.S. Paralympics Open Swimming championships. She was chosen for the Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the United States and won an ESPY award (given by the major U.S. cable television sports network ESPN) as the best female athlete with a disability.
Jessica Long says her goal for the Beijing Paralympics is simple - to win seven individual titles. To help her stay focused on that goal, Jessica has the phrase "seven gold" all around her - in her bedroom, on her computer screen and on her cell phone.
"I mean, I know it is going to be a lot of hard work, but I can do it," she said. "I have been visualizing. Before world championships I was visualizing seven gold. I mean I had seven gold written everywhere. And it worked for world championships. So I have been doing it for about a year now, visualizing seven gold. I have seven gold above my bed, and I have it like on walls and my cell phone, my computer, my screen saver, everywhere. Everything says seven gold. And every night before I go to bed I, I look up at the seven and think about it."
This year, Long's achievements continued to accumulate. In July, she set another world record in the women's 100 meters butterfly and was voted Swimmer of the Meet at the Can-Am championships in Victoria, British Colombia.
Jessica says she is excited about going to Beijing. The swimmer says she did not fully comprehend the experience in Athens, but she plans to make the most of her Paralympics this September in Beijing.
"Like in Athens, it went by so fast and I mean, I remember it being like the best trip ever," said Jessica Long. "And I am so excited for Beijing. Like at Opening Ceremonies when you walk out with your whole team and you are all marching and they light the torch, I mean - it is so exciting. I mean it is like 'all right, let's do this.'"
Jessica Long says she does not know what she will do after Beijing - how many more Paralympics she will compete in - perhaps three. Her competitors should take note that the pool is not the only place Jessica could score wins - when she is not swimming, Long wears prosthetic legs that allow her to run, play basketball, and compete in triathlons.