While Simone Biles competes across town, Paralympic star Jessica Long rolls at swimming trials

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — She’s the face of her sport, and was among the best in the world before some athletes here even began competing. Now she’s in Minneapolis, aiming to earn a trip to Paris to lead the U.S. team — again.

And her name is not Simone Biles.

Jessica Long is a Paralympic swimmer who has won a staggering 29 medals in five trips to the Paralympics since 2004.

At the age of 12, Long was an underdog who unexpectedly won three gold medals at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Now, 20 years later, she’s the most recognizable Paralympic swimmer in the country.

“And here I am 32,” Long said. “I feel 32, I’m excited to still be here, still be a part of it.”

She’s done a Super Bowl commercial with team sponsor Toyota and she’s featured on a Paralympic ad wrapped around a Grand Highlander outside the aquatics center on the campus of the University of Minnesota, where the swimming trials are being held.

Long was born with fibular hemimelia, a genetic disease that occurs during pregnancy and left her without fibulas, ankles and most bones in her feet. At 18 months old, her legs were amputated just below the knees.

After each race, Long gets out of the pool, sits in a folding chair alongside one of the outer lanes and dries off. Sometimes if the next heat is about to start, she pauses until it begins before putting back on her prosthetic legs with white Hoka shoes. Then she walks away and preps for her next event.

“I never wanted to be just good or great, I really want to be a legend,” Long said. “It’s one thing to get to the top, but I’ve been working so hard to stay at the top for so long.”

Erin Popovich was Long’s teammate in 2004 and 2008 and is now the associate director of Paralympic swimming for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

“It’s exciting to see just the longevity of her career,” Popovich said. “Swimming is a hard sport, and to be able to properly maintain your body over that period of time is really incredible."

Over the three days of trials, Long is competing in multiple races each day. She said Thursday was her toughest after the 100-meter breaststroke and 100-meter backstroke, even though she placed first in her class for both.

“They’re definitely the two that my body just struggles a lot more with, especially rotation and stuff, just that snappiness and quickness,” Long said.

While preparing, she relies on her support system of her husband, family and teammates. She’s from Baltimore, but lives away from family in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, where athletes have access to a 45,000-square-foot aquatics center.

But the most important thing it provides is a community through its resident programs. Long trained with teammates McKenzie Coan, Julia Gaffney and Colleen Young leading up to the trials.

Long thrives under pressure, but during the Tokyo Paralympics, despite winning six medals, she struggled mentally with the absence of her family and closest supporters. Having a crowd back in attendance and hearing the cheers as she makes her way to the starting block provides a sense of comfort.

“When the lights come up and it’s time to race she’s always ready to go and ready to excel,” Popovich said.

On Sunday, 21 female and 12 male athletes will be selected for the U.S. Paralympic swim team. Long has worked hard to put herself in position to add to her legacy, but it’s not just about earning more medals.

“I definitely want the Paralympics to,” Long paused to cheer on a teammate, “to continue to grow. I think we still have a long way to go.”

Public and attention has gravitated toward Biles and the gymnastics trials happening across town at the Target Center — the airport is decorated with banners promoting the gymnasts, while the para athletes get scant attention.

Long isn’t complaining about that, but does hope Olympic and Paralympic swimming trials can eventually be held together. The Olympic swim trials already wrapped up — they were in Indianapolis.

“If other countries can figure out (how to combine trials), I think that needs to be our next move,” she said.

Long intends to “slowly retire” following the 2028 Los Angeles Games and await the emergence of the next Team USA star.


Amanda Vogt is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.


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