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Jessica’s Long Way Home: Paralympian Returns to Her Russian Roots

By:  Jay Moye Feb 25, 2014
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Fans who tuned in to NBC for the final day of Olympic action in Sochi last weekend were treated to an inspiring 20-minute documentary on 12-time Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long.

Long Way Home: The Jessica Long Story chronicles the 21-year-old swimmer’s emotional journey of self-discovery from her home in Baltimore, Md. to reunite with her biological family in Russia.

Born Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova, Long visited the orphanage in Irkutsk where she was adopted by American parents at just over a year old. She then boarded an 18-hour train ride for would have been her hometown of Bratsk, deep in the heart of Siberia.

“I’d known about my biological family since the London 2012 Paralympic Games,” Long said during a recent phone interview. “I had about a year to think through and process everything.”

She said the three-day, 7,000-mile trip, which was captured by an NBC film crew, far exceeded her expectations. She met the orphanage caretaker who handed her over to her adoptive dad, several of the orphans (“All they wanted to do was be held and loved”) and her parents and siblings (“My mom, her name is Natalia, she couldn’t look away from me or let go of my hand”).

They spent hours talking through a translator. Her parents stressed how much they wanted to keep her, but that -- as unwed teenagers -- they simply couldn’t afford to support a disabled child at the time. Long was born without fibulas, ankles, heels and most other bones in her feet.

“It was a healing experience,” Long said of the trip. “It made me realize how loved I am by both my family here in Baltimore and my family in Russia.”

When she was 18 months old, Long's lower legs were amputated so she could be fitted for prosthetic legs and learn to walk. Her disability has never slowed her down, however. She started gymnastics at age 4, turning somersaults and cartwheels around the house without her prosthetics.

“My parents were afraid I would damage my knees over time," she explained, "so we decided to find another sport."

Swimming was an easy choice. Long had learned to swim as a toddler in her grandparents’ pool and always felt at home in the water. "My sisters and I would spend hours pretending we were mermaids," she recalled.

Long joined her first competitive swim league when she was 10, immediately falling in love with the strokes and bonded with her teammates -- all of whom had legs. The first time she attempted the butterfly stroke across the length of the pool, she thought she’d drown. Now she holds the world record.

“When I’m in the pool, I never really feel like I’m missing my legs,” Long said.

Just two years later, at age 12, she won three gold medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. “The idea of the Paralympic movement was so exciting to me, and I knew I wanted to be part of it,” she said. “I’d never seen another swimmer with a disability until my first meet.”

Jessica Long

Long is currently training for the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Since then, Long has built quite a resumé. She holds 13 world records, is a three-time ESPY Award winner and two-time U.S. Paralympic Sports Women of the Year, and has been featured on Sports Illustrated’s list of the “World’s Best Female Athletes.”

Swimming has opened countless doors for Long, from motivational speaking to modeling to sponsorships with companies like Coca-Cola. In 2012, she was part of Coke’s 8 Pack of Athletes leading up to the London Games. She credits the brand with helping to elevate the profile of the Paralympic movement in recent years.

Starting next week, Long will return to Russia as an NBC commentator for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi. She’s excited to both try her hand at broadcasting and experience the action without the pressure of competing.

“It’s the halfway point to Rio,” she added, referring to the host city of the 2016 Paralympic Games. “And, after recently meeting my family, being in Sochi will take on an extra-special meaning for me.”

Long is currently training for Rio in Baltimore. She’s working with Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman and several Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, logging up to 8,000 meters a day, six days a week. When she’s not in the pool, she enjoys yoga, Pilates and biking.

“Training with Olympians pushes me to want to be a better athlete and to aim even higher,” she said, noting that one of her goals is to compete in the Olympic trials.

Swimming has made her more disciplined in all aspects of life, and stressed the importance of setting short-term and long-term goals. Still, she says, staying motivated during the grueling training season can be challenging even for an athlete of her caliber.

“Getting get up in the morning and doing the same thing over and over again is tough,” she said. “The hardest part is jumping in the pool…but the moment I’m in the water, and in my element, there’s no other place I’d rather be.”