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Jessica Long on Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

by Brendan Dowling on July 12, 2018

Jessica Long was born in Siberia with fibular hemimelia, a medical condition that required the amputation of both legs below the knee. At thirteen months, she was adopted by a family in Maryland, and soon developed her spectacular gift for swimming. At age twelve, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic swim team, winning three gold medals. Over the past four Paralympic games, she’s won twenty-three medals, and is currently training to compete in her fifth games in Tokyo in 2020. With her sister Hannah, Long has written a photo-illustrated memoir, Unsinkable, which details not only her triumphs in the pool, but also the more personal moments of her journey, such as reconnecting with her birth family in 2012. Booklist gave Unsinkable a starred review, calling it “inspirational on so many levels, . . .a great addition for middle school collections.” Long spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on June 26th, 2018.

How did you first come to swimming?

I was really active as a little girl, so my parents decided to get me involved with gymnastics. For me, gymnastics was a way to get out my energy. I did gymnastics for about six years, but they noticed that I would do all the jumps and land on my knees. So my parents had to make a tough decision: Do we pull her out just as she’s starting to feel like a normal kid or do we give her an ultimatum—that I could wear my prosthetics or find a new sport.

When I was around ten years old, which was when my parents gave me that ultimatum, I would come right out of my prosthetics, they weren’t stable. They weren’t anything like they are today. So my parents sat me down—I remember it was a very official meeting—and said, “You can continue, but you have to wear your prosthetic legs.” I hated the thought of that. My prosthetics had always just been really big and bulky. So I said, “Fine, let’s find another sport.” That’s so funny to me, for as much as I love gymnastics, it was so easy for me to throw it aside. “Okay, new sport!” (laughs)

My grandmother found a clipping in a local newspaper about a local swim team and we just decided to try it out. The thing that sold me was that I didn’t have to wear prosthetics.

What is it about swimming that you connect to so much?

It really comes down to the core of just feeling this insane freedom. For me, every time I do anything I have the weight of my prosthetics. So when I go out to a pool deck, and I sit down and take off my two prosthetic legs, and walk on my knees to the pool, it’s a place where I know I’m no different than anyone else. Obviously, I don’t have the kick, I know that now. (laughs) But at the time, it was a place where I felt so much freedom. I felt strong and capable. Even now, after we talk, I’m going to head off to the pool. I can’t go a week without it, it’s just my favorite place to be. It really comes down to not feeling my legs, not feeling this so-called disability that everyone sees, because when I’m in the water people don’t see that.

You wrote the book with your sister Hannah. Can you describe how the two of you collaborated to write the book?

Hannah is so special. She was the miracle baby. My parents were told for thirteen years they couldn’t have any more children, that’s why they adopted. And a fun little fact, she was born on my parents’ anniversary. She was adorable, she came at the perfect time.

I’m the older sister. I always say that she should be—I hope—looking up to me, but I have found my entire life that I’m looking up to her. For this collaboration, we originally had another writer, but it was hard connecting. It’s hard for me to open up and be vulnerable. I think there’s strength with vulnerability—that’s what I hope people get out of this book—but I I knew that if there was one person I was going to talk to about my adoption, about going back and meeting my biological family, it was going to be Hannah.

The book is so beautiful and you see the gold medals, but Hannah was there for the smaller moments. She would come down into my room and massage my shoulders. She would motivate me. She would follow me to swim practices, she was my little sidekick. To be able to do this book with her is everything. It’s so special.

She came to Russia with me, which was so hard, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I got to pick someone to go with me, and I knew right away it was going to be Hannah. I actually have a super funny memory. We had just landed after traveling, I kid you not, thirty hours, because there had been a ten-hour delay. It dawned on me—don’t ask me why I never thought about it during the whole year of preparation for the trip—that my birth family might not want to see me.

So we landed, and I was like, “Hannah, I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t want to be here.” I told her, “I want to work out. I just need to go work out.” So there I am, up in the gym in Russia, I had just traveled for thirty-something hours, and she pulled up a chair next to the elliptical as I was sweating out all my emotions. She had a book, and every couple of minutes, I’d say, “Han?” and she just listened.  You can learn from that, from people who are just there. And that’s just Hannah.

I wanted to ask about meeting your Russian family. What was that experience like?

It’s kind of crazy, because it feels like now, did that really happen? You have to understand that there was a time I never talked about my legs, I never talked about the adoption. I think that’s how I became such a good swimmer—I put it in the pool. Any emotion, any feeling, I wanted to swim through it. And it worked—I have some cool medals to show. But eventually with those medals there’s stuff you still have to face, the stuff that you hide and push away. For me, that was always the adoption. I didn’t want people to talk about it. I didn’t want people to know. So going to Russia when this opportunity came, NBC came to us and asked if they could follow my journey back to Russia. I was never going to say no, but I remember thinking that all of this was going to come way later in my life. At twenty-one, I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this.

Nothing about it was easy, but then I look at my life and think nothing’s been easy, so why would this be any different? I’ve had twenty-something surgeries and I’ve had to relearn to walk every single time. So okay, here we go to Russia.

It was something I just had to do. I had to know what she looked like. As a little girl I’d always thought about it. The trip was so hard. I remember thinking I’d rather swim a whole week of butterfly straight than have to go through this. That’s what I compared it to, this excruciating swimming. I look back and think it was a brave thing to do. I’m so touched by people who come up to me and have told their stories. They tell me they were adopted from Russia,  they ask me questions and want to know what it was like to meet my mom. I’m really at a loss for words because I don’t think anything will ever compare to it. It was incredible.

We only stayed with her for three hours and now I think, “Why didn’t we stay longer?” It was really cool. The most special part was that I looked like her. There was a moment when my birth mom Natalia and I went over to the mirror and I was like, “Wow, we have the same eyes. We have the same hair, the same face structure.” As a little girl I’d made that such a big thing: I just wanted to know who I looked like.

Forgiveness was also one of the biggest things I learned. Just because I met her doesn’t mean a whole lot of other questions didn’t come up. It’s been five years and I’m still working through stuff. I think that’s important, to always be working through things.

You talked earlier about how you always worked through your emotions in the pool, and since meeting your Russian family, has your approach to swimming changed?

This is so funny that you’re saying that, because this has been a big topic for me. I’m a really big believer of talking through it with—I can’t believe I just said that, because I was basically pushed into a counselor’s office. I was like, “I don’t want to be here.” (laughs) And that was our session a couple of weeks ago: How do I swim without the emotion of anger, without trying to prove something? It’s been a big adjustment. It’s a comfortable zone for me, to beat the water, get out everything, and then do it again the next day.

I’m realizing how incredible life is, how we’re all given obstacles but it’s about how we turn obstacles into opportunities.  For me, swimming is a platform. It’s just the beginning. And I think that’s so exciting. Before Paralympics, up until the age of ten, I’d never seen another amputee and that’s crazy. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be going to a hospital to visit a little girl who’s just lost her leg. I think that’s just incredible, that swimming has given me these opportunities to meet the next generation who are going to do big things and inspire the world.

That kind of visibility must be huge.

Yeah, and it doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Here I am at twenty-six and I’m still learning. I think one of the biggest things is accepting yourself and learning to love yourself. For so long, I would look at my legs and just not understand. I still think that’s a thing. I was talking to my older sister Amanda about it, and she said, “For you, being an amputee, you can’t just accept it once and be done. You have to wake up every day and accept it.” I thought, “Yeah, every single day, I have this opportunity to either resent my legs or accept them.” I’ve had to learn to think, wow, “I don’t have legs, but that doesn’t really mean anything.” I think that’s one thing I want readers to take away: “If Jess could do it without her legs, then I can too.”

You’ve competed in four Paralympics. How has your approach to the Games changed since your first one back in 2004?

For me, the last couple of years was the first time that I’ve had a break in maybe fourteen years. My training’s been good, but it hasn’t been the heavy six to eight hours a day, which will start in August. Again, I view swimming more as a platform and as an opportunity for people to take me more seriously. As you get older, you appreciate everything so much more. The gold medals are awesome, but it’s really about the process and the journey of getting there. It’s these mundane weeks and days that are so boring and gruesome, because you’re training day in and day out. I want to really take in all these little days, because one day I won’t have swimming, so I want to just appreciate it all now.

And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?

You’re speaking to the biggest library fan. I couldn’t wait to get my library card, and I also probably lose my library card once a month. (laughs) I love my public library. I’m there all the time. I love what it enables people to do: to go in there, check out books, and just be a part of a community. One of my favorite things to do after training is to go get a nice cup of coffee and head to a bookstore or local library, pick out a bunch of books, and then pray that I read one of them. (laughs) I think it’s important to be involved with your community, and it’s just incredible that the public library system offers all these possibilities to do so.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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