On the final day of swimming competition at the Tokyo Paralympics, American Jessica Long won gold in the women’s 100m butterfly S8 to reach the top of the podium for the 16th time in her storied career. The 29-year-old now owns 29 career medals, including six from these Games.
But while Long calls Tokyo a “total success,” she notes that isn’t just because of her medal haul. “I think it is the first time I realized I had nothing I had to do in the sport,” she told On Her Turf on Friday.
Long said she is happiest with what her success represents: the people who helped her reach this point.
“It’s never been just about me,” she said. “It’s about my grandparents who used to drive me to swim practice. My dad who – on his one day to sleep in – would take me to swim meets. My mom and my sisters who would massage my aching shoulders when I was little… There have been so many people who have believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
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Five years ago, Long left the Rio Paralympics – where she also claimed six medals – with very different feelings.
“It was a disappointment because there were so many things out of my control,” she said of her experience in 2016. “I had two really bad shoulder injuries, I could barely train the last six weeks. I had a really bad eating disorder. I lost about 20 pounds, I was really sick. I think that was something I felt like I could control.
“To me, I look back and I see a girl that was really hurting… It was really frustrating because I knew what I was capable of.”
After Rio, Long took a break. She married her husband, Lucas Winters, in 2019. She started coaching, an experience that helped remind her of her own love of swimming. After the time away, Long realized that she wasn’t done competing.
And she still isn’t.
Long – who leaves Tokyo as a five-time Paralympian – plans to continue swimming, buoyed by the idea of a home Paralympics in the summer of 2028.
Is the title of “most decorated Paralympian in history” an untouchable record?
Even if Long competes in Los Angeles in 2028, or Brisbane in 2032, there is one record currently out of reach.
While Long surpassed the career medal total of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, the Paralympic record is an entirely different beast: 55 medals, earned by American swimmer Trischa Zorn.
Long and Zorn overlapped at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, where Long made her Paralympic debut at age 12 and Zorn retired at age 40.
“The idea that I got to be on a team with Trischa Zorn – as a 12-year-old – is wild to me,” Long said. “She’s incredible.”
Zorn, who first competed at the Paralympics in 1980, recorded her biggest hauls at the 1988 Seoul Games (12 medals, all gold) and the 1992 Barcelona Games (10 medals, all gold).
Since then, the number of events in each classification has been greatly reduced, which means swimmers today have fewer medal opportunities.
“Trischa could swim everything back in the day and I’m kind of jealous,” Long said. “I’d love to see the 200s, the 50s, the 400 IM. I would do so many events.”
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How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics
NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights: