Disabled swimmer named top amateur

Middle River's Long wins Sullivan Award

April 13, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Jessica Long bested Michael Phelps - again.

Phelps just won seven gold medals at the world swimming championships. Long took nine at last December's world meeting for paralympians, a performance that continues to pay off for the 15-year-old swimmer from Middle River.

Long was named the 77th winner of the Sullivan Award on Wednesday night in New York, beating the likes of Phelps, Joakim Noah and Apolo Ohno.

Since 1930, the Amateur Athletic Union has given the award to the nation's top amateur athlete. Now for the first time, the AAU has recognized a paralympian.

"This is a great step forward for us, to have a paralympic athlete be recognized among such a great group of finalists," said Julie O'Neill, associate director in the paralympic division of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "It opens a lot of doors for our athletes.

"The whole paralympic movement has become more relevant."

Long was born without fibula bones and was 18 months old when her lower legs were amputated.

At age 10, she began to direct her energy toward swimming and immediately established her international potential with three gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.

In December, at the International Paralympic Committee's World Swimming Championships in South Africa, Long won her nine gold medals, in seven individual events and two relays. She competes in the S8 classification.

Long lowers world records nearly every time she enters a pool, breaking three more, in the 200 backstroke, 800 freestyle and 400 individual medley at a meet in Montreal last month.

Born in Irkutsk, Russia, Long was 13 months old when she was adopted by Steve and Beth Long. She represents Merritt Athletic Swimming.

In New York, Long beat more familiar names to win the Sullivan Award. Heading the list of finalists was Phelps, another local athlete who went to Towson High, won the 2003 Sullivan Award and then six gold medals at the Athens Olympics. Many regard him as the best swimmer ever.

The other finalists included speedskater Ohno, college basketball standouts Noah of Florida and Tennessee's Candace Parker, Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and snowboarder Hannah Teter.

"I was surprised. I wasn't expecting it all," Long said yesterday. "I had a great year, but everyone else had a good year, too."

Long was asked about being a role model for the paralympic movement.

"To be the second paralympian nominated was an honor," she said. "To represent all the other paralympic athletes, or anyone with a disability, is so cool."

Long spoke from LaGuardia Airport, where she was making her way to Michigan for this weekend's Greater Toledo Aquatic Club Disability Open.

Besides Phelps and last year's winner, former Duke basketball player J.J. Redick, past Sullivan Award winners include golf legend Bobby Jones, two-time Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias, speedskater Eric Heiden and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, the 1997 winner while at Tennessee.

Long is not the first disabled athlete to win the award. Jim Abbott, the 1987 winner, went on to pitch for four major league clubs, despite having no right hand.

Other Sullivan Award pioneers include swimmer Ann Curtis, the first woman honored, in 1944; and Joan Benoit-Samuelson, who was recognized for taking gold in the first Olympic marathon for women in 1984.

The last woman to win the award was figure skater Sarah Hughes, for 2002. The last female swimmer to win was Janet Evans, for her 1989 accomplishments.

After this weekend, Long is headed to meets in England and Germany. In the fall, she'll visit Beijing, site of the 2008 Paralympics, with some of her U.S. teammates.

"We're still up in the clouds," her father said. "It seems like this is all happening so fast."

On May 3, the USOC will honor Long as its 2006 Paralympian of the Year.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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