To this day, Jessica Long, now all of 20 years old, remains the only athlete with a disability to receive that honor in its 82-year history.
“I didn’t even prepare a speech or anything. It wasn’t like I went thinking, ‘Oh there’s a chance I could win,’ ” the Baltimore native said when I called her recently. “I never expected them to pick me.
“So I was just sitting up there on the stage, and they’re announcing the winner, and I was staring off into space. I remember that, staring off into space, and they announced my name and I’m still staring off into space. And one girl, I forget who she was, tapped my shoulder and she was like, ‘That’s you, you won.’ ”
The Paralympic Games follow the Olympic Games every four years, without the fanfare and worldwide attention focused on the main event. When the planet’s best athletes gather to compete, we want to know who deserves the title of world’s fastest man — not fastest with cerebral palsy or fastest with sight impairment.
For the first time ever, an amputee — South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius— will compete against able-bodied Olympians in London, which might change the playing field a bit this year. But disabled swimmers compete mostly in obscurity, matched in 14 categories that pit them against others with similar physical, mental or visual handicaps. In that world, Long is a superstar.
She holds 20 world records, calls companies such as Visa, Coca-Cola, Ralph Lauren, Oakley and Speedo sponsors and has a nascent modeling career. She stands 5-foot-10 in her prosthetic legs, with wide shoulders and considerable upper body strength — a human prototype for speed in the water, like budding U.S. star Missy Franklin.
Except that where Franklin wears size 13 shoes, Long was born without most of the bones in her feet, ankles or fibulas and had both legs amputated below the knee shortly after her first birthday.
That never seemed to hold her back as a child. Her father, Steve Long, remembers a toddler in constant motion, who, as she grew accustomed to locomoting without lower legs, could get anywhere she wanted. He and his wife would find her on kitchen counters and climbing the refrigerator, he told me.
“Even on gym sets and monkey bars . . . she could outdo other kids. She could grab hold and swing around and look like she never got tired.” And she always had an athlete’s competitive fire: “She wanted to always prove that she could do what everyone else could do,” he said. “And not just do it, do it better than the others.”