Jessica Long is a record-beating US Paralympic swimming star, winning a dozen Paralympic gold medals games in Athens, Beijing and London. Born Tatiana, she was left by her teenage Russian parents at an orphanage in Bratsk, Siberia because they could not cope with her disabilities. A year later she was adopted by American couple Beth and Steve Long and grew up in Baltimore, USA.
Born with fibular hemimelia – without fibulas, ankles, heels or most bones in her feet – she was adopted at the age of 13 months. Five months later, the remainder of the lower parts of her legs were amputated so she could be fitted for prosthetic legs and learn how to walk. The Longs are a sporting family. ‘I am one of six children and my parents made sure we all remained active. I have been involved in many sports including gymnastics, basketball, cheerleading, ice skating, biking, running, and rock climbing. However, I always loved swimming the most. I learned how to swim in my grandparents’ pool where my sisters and I would spend hours pretending we were mermaids.’
After talking to a Russian journalist about her Siberian birth, she made contact with her birth parents who, unmarried at the time of Tatiana’s birth, went on to marry and have a family.
Jessica’s real mother, Natalia, now 38, explained on Russian television how she felt two decades ago, at the age of 18, after giving birth to a seriously disabled daughter. ‘I feel so sorry,’ she said. ‘At that time – there was some fear, I got scared. I had to leave her behind. But I did think that I would take her back,’ she said. ‘Of course I was against leaving her in the hospital but because of the circumstances we had to do so. In my heart I did want to take her home, and thought I would take her back later. I was alone in Siberia, without my mother and father. Where would I go with her, if I had taken her? Doctors told me to leave her behind – said that I could not help her… I called her Tatiana, after my elder sister.’
Jessica’s American father, Steve, remembers, ‘It took us a lot of time to sort out all the paperwork for adoption. We had no idea she had some parents. We thought she was an orphan. And she had serious problems with legs. She does not have bones in her legs down from her knees, right after knees there are feet with fingers. We turned to many professionals in order to solve this problem.’
Jessica’s Russian Aunt Tatiana, for whom she was named, recalled how her sister Natalia phoned to tell her the news about Jessica, adding she was on her way to a TV interview about her daughter. ‘My sister Natalia called me. She said: ‘I am flying to Moscow, Jessica Long is my daughter. She has been searching for me for three years… I nearly lost my consciousness, I was so shocked. At that moment I had been watching Paralympic Games. The swimming had been on and I saw Jessica there. Then I looked online. Jessica is so much like her sister Nastya. She is just Nastya’s lookalike.’
Jessica said, ‘Who would have ever imagined that a girl with a disability from an orphanage in Siberia would be where I am today? I’m living proof that you can accomplish your dreams, no matter how great or small. I would like to thank God, my family, friends, and coaches for always encouraging me! I couldn’t be successful without them!’
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