Jessica LongPara SwimmingNews

Far From Home, Jessica Long’s Passion For Swimming Drives Her In Chase For A Sixth Paralympics

by Karen Price

Jessica Long poses during the Team USA Universal shoot on Nov. 15, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Getty Images)

Jessica Long could quit swimming today and still be a legend.

She’s a five-time Paralympian who’s won an astounding 29 medals, to go with 54 more from the world championships, making her one of the most decorated athletes Team USA has ever known. Long has already proven herself many times over.

Yet at age 32, Long has rededicated herself the sport, leaving her family, friends and home in Baltimore to live and train full-time at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s a quest, she hopes, that will culminate in a trip to this summer’s Paralympic Games Paris 2024.

“I love the sport, and I’m not ready to give it up,” Long said on a recent podcast with Olympic medalists Katie Hoff and Missy Franklin.

Long has been a fixture on the U.S. Para swimming team for a generation, going back to her Paralympic debut as a 12-year-old in 2004. She won three gold medals at the Paralympic Games Athens 2004, and added more in each subsequent trip to the Games. Along the way she’s also become a high-profile advocate for the Paralympic Movement, including appearing in a Super Bowl commercial in 2021 and writing a children’s book that was published last year.

Though from the outside Long can make her success and longevity look easy, the reality is often much more complicated. That’s in part what keeps her driving forward.

The Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, with strict COVID restrictions and loved ones unable to attend, took a toll on Long. She began taking antidepressants for the first time in the months that followed, she said.

“Even though I had a very successful Games in Tokyo, it’s so hard to be out of routine,” Long said at the recent Team USA Media Summit in New York. “I’ve worked really hard the last couple years with my therapist trying to get back to the love that I have for the sport.”

After Tokyo, she tried to find a place to train in Baltimore but couldn’t find a pro group that fit her needs. She admitted in a recent Instagram post that she really struggled to get her spark back, and “honestly didn’t know if I’d continue swimming,” she wrote.

That ultimately led her back to Colorado.

The USOPTC offers state-of-the-art training facilities, as well as an athlete dining hall, physical therapy and other resources. But moving back was a sacrifice, especially at this stage in her life.

Jessica Long poses with her gold medal after winning the women's 200-meter individual medley finals at the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships on Aug. 5, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Getty Images)

Long previously lived at the Training Center from 2010 to 2014, as a young adult. Her second stint, for about a year during the pandemic, brought new challenges.

“I got married, and I was literally like OK I’ll see you in a year,” said Long, who married Lucas Winters in February 2020, just before the pandemic. “I couldn’t see my husband for like five months during COVID, just with all the rules at the training center.”

Those restrictions have since been lifted, but with Winters still in Baltimore for work the couple is living thousands of miles apart again. Long said they’ll see each other at her sister’s wedding in May, and then maybe not again until the Paris Games, which Winters plans to attend.

“Right now, even when I doubt myself, or even if I have a bad practice, I just remind myself I’m in one of the best environments — from long-course training to weight training to the food being designed for the athletes and we get so much massage and PT,” Long said. “So I’m just trying to trust that process.”

There are some other benefits to being one of the most experienced resident athletes. Though she’s back living in the training center dorms, Long said she got one of the “really cool new VIP rooms” as opposed to the more spartan accommodations that come to mind when thinking of traditional dorms.

“This is one of the first times that it’s actually really big,” said Long, who said she decorated in earthy tones with lots of wicker baskets and pottery. “We have super high ceilings. And I’m actually living with my old roommate that I lived with before Tokyo, Julia Gaffney.”

In March, Long competed at the Para Swimming World Series stop in Italy, racing in five events. Directly after that, her husband tore his Achilles tendon, so she paused her training to go home and help him in his recovery. Long most recently competed during the World Series stop in Indianapolis, the last big event for many U.S. Para swimmers before the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Swimming in June.

But as much as Long is working on the physical piece of her preparation, she knows that success on the world’s biggest stage is about more than her body being ready.

“I’ve always believed that when you get to the Games, it comes down to being mentally tough,” she said. “This will be my sixth Games. I have the experience. And even when there are moments of doubt, or this will be the first time, I’m assuming, swimming in front of this large a crowd since Rio, I just go back to, it’s just swimming. You know how to do it.”

And while having 16 Paralympic gold medals is exciting, she told Hoff and Franklin, part of her still wants to prove herself that she can do it again.

“I do want to be a legend,” she said. “I don’t want to just be good. I don’t want to be great. I want to be the best.”