Catch Me If You Can

At 14, Jessica Long of Middle River is winning gold and setting records with the U.S. Paralympic swim team

November 27, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN REPORTER

Jessica Long's proficiency in the pool is apparent after a few strokes. Bobbing up and down on the breaststroke, she's indistinguishable from the practice partners in her lane, but something seems missing from her otherwise impeccable freestyle form.

The less splash swimmers make with their hands, the faster they go, but Long's kick leaves a curiously scant trail.

The 14-year-old from Middle River has mastered the pull and push of water well enough to set multiple world records, but her athleticism is fully comprehended only on the pool deck. A double amputee below the knees, Long walks on prosthetic legs.

On Thursday morning, Long left her parents and siblings for Thanksgiving in Chicago, joining the other members of the U.S. Paralympic swim team.

They were headed to training camp in Sao Paolo, Brazil, then Durban, South Africa, for the International Paralympic Committee's World Swimming Championships, which begin this week. Long, who is entered in all seven individual events in her S8 classification, expects to return with a bundle of gold medals.

"I like being chased," said Long, who is testimony to the power of love and modern medicine.

Steve and Beth Long had two children, but were having trouble conceiving more in 1993, when Jessica and her brother Joshua were housed at an orphanage in the Russian town of Irkutsk. The Longs adopted both, then found that nature has a fine sense of humor when Beth gave birth to two more girls.

Born without fibula bones, Jessica was 18 months old when her lower legs were amputated after she was adopted.

"After Jessica received her first prosthetic legs, she was up and around so quickly," Steve Long said. "There's been no slowing her down."

Swimming takes hold

Jessica tried ballet, gymnastics and karate, and quickly took to the pool at her grandparents' home in Rosedale.

At 10, she joined a swim team sponsored by the Dundalk/Eastfield Rec Council. At 11, Long competed in her first national competition for disabled athletes. At 12, she was training at the Knight Diver Aquatic Center in Edgewood, which created a neat coincidence.

The North Baltimore Aquatic Club's satellite operation in Harford County rented that pool in 2004. The NBAC group included Katie Hoff, who became the youngest member of the U.S. contingent at the Athens Olympics.

After that American team returned home, on came the U.S. Paralympic team, with Long being its youngest member. She won three gold medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games, toured the White House, then pursued the same versatility that drives Hoff, Michael Phelps and other swimmers of rare ambition.

"I couldn't even do the butterfly two years ago," Long said. "Now, it's one of my favorite strokes."

In August, that improved range allowed Long to lower the world record in the 200 individual medley for a swimmer with a disability to 2 minutes, 48.46 seconds.

By comparison, the national age-group record for girls ages 13-14 remains the world-class 2:15.26 Hoff recorded in 2004.

Besides losing time on starts and not having feet to kick with, turns are tricky for Long. The stub of one leg is longer than the other; in order to push off both, she enters walls at a pronounced angle.

"She falls behind off the dive and on turns," said Andrew Barranco, her coach at Merritt Athletic, "but makes up for it in between."

Long, who has modeled racing legs for a prosthetics manufacturer, represents Merritt Athletic Swimming.

"We mandate that all national team athletes be integrated into a mainstream program," said Julie O'Neill, team manager and head coach of the U.S. Paralympic swim team. "They all have to be affiliated with some type of club."

In the door

O'Neill dropped Long's name two months ago at the World Clinic in Crystal City, Va., where nearly 50 coaches attended a session on "Integrating Disabled Swimmers Into Your Able-Bodied Practice."

Home-schooled, Long attends chemistry and geometry classes with a Merritt Athletic teammate. In South Africa, she'll hang with Paralympic teammate Elizabeth Stone, who's from Michigan, and challenge the world record-holder from Norway in the 100 backstroke.

The Paralympic movement, which began after World War II, has grown to 13 categories, according to disability. Those restricted to wheelchairs compete in the 1, 2 and 3 classes, while 11, 12 and 13 are for the blind and visually impaired. Hoff's S8 class includes other multiple amputees.

Her 2007 calendar includes meets in Canada, England, Germany and China, the last of which includes a test run at the pool that will be used for the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics. She plans to be faster then, and even more mobile.

"Jessica had another surgery at the end of last summer," Steve Long said. "She had to spend three weeks in a wheelchair, and it liked to have killed her."

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