US swimmer Jessica Long refuses to let her disability hold her back and looks set to take her 13th gold medal in the Paralympic Games in Rio
Despite beginning life in a Russian orphanage after being born with a rare genetic condition that meant both of her legs had to be amputated at an early age, US Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long has wowed the world with her exceptional sporting ability.
We tell her inspirational story.
Difficult start in life
Among all the incredible stories of determination and superhuman ability at the Paralympics, that of US swimmer Jessica Long is particularly inspiring.
She is one of the most decorated Paralympic swimmers of all time. Having secured 12 gold medals (and 17 medals in total) and 14 world records by the age of 24, she may well yet match the extraordinary achievement of her fellow US swimmer Trischa Zorn, who secured 41 golds in a 24-year Paralympic career.
Born in Siberia with fibular hemimelia, a rare condition that meant she had almost no bones in her lower legs, Long’s young parents were convinced by doctors that they wouldn’t be able to care for a disabled child and reluctantly gave her to an orphanage when she was a baby. At just over a year old, she was adopted by an American couple, who took her home to Baltimore, where she grew up.
In America, Jessica received the medical treatment she needed. When she was 18-months-old both of her lower legs were amputated so she could begin to learn to walk with the aid of prosthetic limbs, but she certainly didn’t let her disability hold her back.
Change of plan
A keen gymnast from the age of four, Jessica had no problem turning somersaults and cartwheels around the house without her prosthesis. But, when she was ten, she was told she would have to start using her prosthesis while performing or risk irreversible damage to her knees. So, reluctantly Jessica looked for another sport, and focused on her love of swimming.
Incredibly, just two years after she began competing, Jessica won three golds at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens and beat the world-record holder by a tenth of a second. She was just 12 years old, and the youngest member of the US Paralympic team.
‘When I’m in the pool, I never really feel like I’m missing my legs,’ Jessica says. ‘Every problem, every thought I have, everything is just gone and it’s just me in the water.’
She built on her amazing achievement by winning a further four golds in Beijing and five in London, and now heads to Rio holding 14 world records.
It was after the London Games in 2012 that she was reunited with her birth parents, who had been tracked down by a journalist. Natalia and Oleg Valtyshev had no idea their daughter was a world champion.
Her emotional return to Russia was chronicled in the 2014 NBC film Long Way Home: The Jessica Long Story.
Told by doctors that it would be impossible to care for a ‘crippled’ child, Natalia and Oleg gave Jessica, who they named Tanya, to an orphanage.
‘My little girl was born preterm,’ Natalia told the Siberian Times. ‘I was told that she would be an invalid for life and that she would be unable to walk.’ The couple did not want to give their baby up, but were persuaded to do so by doctors and Oleg’s mother.
‘Of course I was against leaving her in hospital, but because of the circumstances we had to do so,’ Natalia continued. ‘In my heart I did want to take her home, and I thought I would take her back later.’
At 13-months-old Jessica was adopted from the orphanage in Bratsk by American couple Beth and Steve Long and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. She is one of six children, and her brother Joshua was adopted from the same orphanage as Jessica.
‘We wanted to adopt, and when we saw a picture of little Jessica we fell in love,’ says Jessica’s adoptive mother Beth. ‘After Steve went to Russia he told me about Josh, and we loved him too, and he and Jessica came into our family,’
Jessica’s biological parents, who were only 16 when they began dating, are still together today and went on to have three more children. A year after Jessica was born, Natalia gave birth to another girl, Nastya, who was diagnosed with infant cerebral paralysis, and later, a twin boy and girl.
In December 2013, Jessica traveled to the village of Tem in the Irkutsk region of Siberia to meet her biological parents. She described the journey as one of those ‘life-changing moments’.
Looking ahead to Rio
Jessica is now ready to improve her medal tally in Rio. She has been training alongside Olympic and Paralympic athletes with Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman.
‘Training with Olympians pushes me to want to be a better athlete and to aim even higher,’ said the two-time US Paralympic Sports Woman of the Year.
‘Getting up in the morning and doing the same thing over and over again is tough. The hardest part is jumping in the pool… but the moment I’m in the water, and in my element, there’s no place I’d rather be.’
Paying it back
Grateful for the opportunities being adopted afforded her, Jessica never forgets where she came from and supports an orphanage in India.
‘As someone who was adopted, I know how important it is to support people in other countries, and I realise how blessed we are in the United States,’ she said. ‘I work at lot with Make a Wish foundation, and I also promote active and healthy living.’