Of the 900-plus swimmers that competed in the Flowers Sea Swim on Saturday, few can claim to have come as far or surmounted as many challenges as Jessica Long.
Born in Siberia with a rare birth defect that cost her the use of her legs, Long was adopted from a Russian orphanage as a baby. She has gone on to represent the US and become one of the most decorated Paralympic athletes in the country’s history.
Long swam the mile in just over 21 minutes on Saturday to add an impressive 17th place finish in the Cayman event to her long list of accomplishments.
“I think that’s pretty cool,” she told the Cayman Compass as she caught her breath at the finish line.
“I am especially proud to be doing it as a bilateral amputee,” she said. “Finishing 17th is super exciting for me, but more important is to see all different people race. I think if I can do it without legs, anyone can do it.”
Long was born with fibular hemimelia, a birth defect affecting one in 40,000 babies, in which all or part of the fibular bone is missing. Both her legs were amputated below the knee at 18 months old.
She harnesses surprising upper body strength combined with perfect technique to perform exploits in the pool and in the ocean that many able-bodied athletes simply cannot match.
“I look around and everyone’s kicking. I’m not kicking – it is all on my arms. It is definitely harder, so I am really proud to finish 17th,” she said.
Long, who has won 13 gold, six silver, and four bronze medals for the US at Paralympic Games, was competing in the Flowers swim for the third time. This was her best performance.
She said, “What I love about this event, and Mr. Flowers is one of the first to do this, is you are combining Paralympic athletes and Olympic athletes in one race. I love it because it is very inclusive and I think that is where we need to be in today’s world.”
She said it was especially pleasing that the sponsored charity for this year’s event was the Special Olympics.
The next major target for Long is the Paralympics in Tokyo next year.
In her biography ‘Unsinkable’, the 27-year-old talks about how she turned the loss of her legs into a positive.
“I used to say that swimming was my escape, but that’s not accurate. Swimming forced me to deal with the things I wanted to escape. It helped me work through a lot of feelings and frustrations, because I had hours under water just to swim laps and think,” she wrote.
“I had the freedom to be alone with myself, completely unlimited by my circumstances or my body, while doing what I loved. I think that’s why I took to swimming with such ease. All my life I have had to fight to catch up with people. But not in the water. That’s the one place where everyone else is trying to keep up with me.”
She also discusses how the Paralympics gave her new confidence and helped her wear her prosthetic legs with pride.
She wrote, “I want to show everyone that our differences are what makes us beautiful and unique.”