Middle River swimmer, at 12, brings home gold

October 06, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Julie O'Neill, It must be something in the water.

Michael Phelps is not the only world-class swimmer to return to Baltimore County with a chest full of gold medals. Jessica Long, a 12-year-old from Middle River, is back home after capturing three gold medals and setting two world records at the Paralympics recently held in Athens, Greece.

In Athens, Jessica competed in the same pool as did Phelps but under drastically different circumstances. She is a double amputee, and, as the youngest member of the U.S. athletic contingent, Jessica faced the finest disabled athletes in the world.

She is back home, shaking off the jet lag after returning over the weekend. She remembers having trouble sleeping in Olympic Village and disliking the food and curfews -- but loving the competition and meeting new friends from different cultures.

"I liked the Australians the best," Jessica said. "They were the nicest."

She also said yesterday that she wants to meet Phelps, winner of six gold and two bronze medals in Athens. But these days, he'll be lucky to get an appointment with her.

On Saturday, Jessica will be grand marshal of Towson University's homecoming parade, which is to pass through the area where a huge crowd celebrated a "Phelpstival" last month. Then she will be honored during a pre-game ceremony at the Towson-Rhode Island football game and act as a celebrity reader to children in the university's "Revelry and Rivalry" program after the game.

On Oct. 20, Jessica will receive an award at a luncheon in Timonium hosted by the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities.

`Wonderful athlete'

"Without equivocation, Jessica Long is a wonderful athlete," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday. "Remembering Michael Phelps' great Olympic swimming achievement, Baltimore County now has a favorite daughter as well as a favorite son."

Unfazed by all this attention, Jessica said she is "just glad to be home."

Sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Paralympics is the second most-attended sporting event in the world, according to the organization's Web site. This year, 136 nations competed, fielding more than 3,000 athletes.

For months, Jessica swam thousands of yards to prepare for the competition. Once in Athens, the demands did not diminish.

Awakened at 5:30 a.m., she and her teammates trained two hours a day as she prepared for her first event. Their diets were restricted, and she said she reluctantly limited herself to cereal, pasta, watermelon and salads.

On Sept. 20, she won the gold in the 100-meter freestyle. Three days later, she won gold while swimming in the 400- meter freestyle relay. The next day, she earned another gold in the 400-meter freestyle.

Off to McDonald's

When done with her races, she and some fellow swimmers broke loose. They passed up the Olympic cafeteria and headed straight for McDonald's.

"The french fries melted in my mouth," Jessica recalled with a smile.

Because of tight security in the athletes village, she rarely saw her family members, who stayed in an Athens apartment.

"Honestly, I think we missed her more than she missed us," said her mother, Beth Long.

Jessica, adopted as an infant by Beth and Steve Long from a Russian orphanage, was born without major bones in her lower legs. She required amputation of both legs below the knees when she arrived in Baltimore as a 1-year-old. She has had five subsequent surgeries to remove bone overgrowth in her knees.

She has worn prostheses since she was a little girl. Recently, Jessica was fitted for new legs that will cost $18,000, covered by her family's health insurance, and feature adjustable, carbon-fiber feet that will enable her to wear 2-inch heels. Later, she wants to get fitted for legs that will enable her to run and cycle competitively.

"I think she's going to enjoy doing all that," said her father. "But right now I think she's just settling back into being a 12- year-old."

To local supporters of Jessica, such as her prosthetist, Jonas W. Seeburg of Abingdon, she has matured from her exposure to world-class competition.

"Now, she's a star, and this is only the beginning," said Seeburg, a former college swimmer who attended the Paralympic events with the Long family.

Julie O'Neill, manager of the Paralympic swim team in Colorado Springs, Colo., said Jessica can become even better as she develops physically and grows stronger. "Jessie is a typical, talented athlete in her age group -- she just gets up there and goes," O'Neill said. "It's a beautiful thing."

Unlike elite competitors only a few years older, O'Neill said, Jessica "has no predisposed notion of where she belongs in world rankings. She has lots of untapped talent and has the attitude to refine her techniques to improve."

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