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Maryland Swimmer, 12, Prepares for Her Moment in Athens

Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page C12

Jessica Long's arms are her propellers. They churned up a froth as she motored through her daily 2 1/2-hour, 4,000-yard swim practice one afternoon last month. Those slim, strong arms may bring the Maryland 12-year-old a medal or two this month at the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, where she will be the youngest U.S. competitor.

But don't overlook her knees. Born without the major bones in her lower legs, Jessica had both legs amputated below the knee when she was 18 months old.

Jessica Long swam for 21/2 hours each day to get ready for the Paralympic Games.

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So when she hauled herself out of the pool at Baltimore's Hillcrest Swim Club after practice, it was on two tough, somewhat scarred and callused knees that she stood.

"Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. It really hurts!" she said, grinning and ow-ing with each knee-step on the concrete as she headed for the bench where she had left her artificial legs (called prosthetics).

"I'm telling you, Jess, we have to get you some little kneepads," said her coach, Stephanie Weisenborn, laughing. "I'm going to make them myself out of rubber."

"Yup," said Jessica as she tucked her legs into the prosthetics, put on her puka shell necklace and dove into a bag of Ritz Bits.

That's pretty much how Jessica, her coaches and her family handle her disability: They figure out ways to deal with it, laugh about it and, often, just forget about it. Most of all, they don't let it get in the way of Jessica's fierce desire to win. She has set 11 national and two Pan American records for disabled swimmers.

"I guess I'm pretty competitive," said Jessica, whose T-shirt read: "I AM A GIRL. I AM AN ATHLETE. SWIMMING IS MY SPORT. PREPARE TO BE HUMILIATED."

Jessica was born in Russia and adopted at the age of 1. She lives in Middle River with her parents, an older brother and two little sisters. Their mom teaches them at home. Jessica also has two grown-up siblings who live elsewhere.

Even though Jessica's leg problems required five operations, her parents say she was super-active from the start. Like many young girls, she tried ice skating, cheerleading and gymnastics, but found she couldn't advance much because of her disability.

In the water, though, she felt at home. At 10, she joined the Dundalk-Eastfield Rec Council swim team.

"She was swimming with regular kids," said her mother, Beth, "and was coming in average against them." That caught the attention of some people who work with disabled swimmers. Once Jessica began competing against them, she started setting records almost immediately.

At her first national meet, in Minnesota last year, she set five U.S. records in her disability class: the 50-yard breaststroke, the 100-yard individual medley and three distances in freestyle. (If you'd like to check your best time against hers, she swam the 100-yard freestyle in 1 minute 12 1/4 seconds.)

Jessica gets most of her power from her upper body. Since she can't push off from the starting block, she drops into the pool, and she does her turn-arounds by pushing off the wall with her knees.

Thinking ahead to Greece, Jessica said she's uneasy about eating unfamiliar food such as octopus. In addition to possibly winning a medal, she's looking forward to being with her new swimming friends:

"It feels neat being around them 'cause they're like you and they're swimming hard and they know what it's like not to have -- they just know what it's like."

-- Fern Shen

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