Swimmer Long wins gold medal
Paralympian sets record in Athens
by Marge Neal
Baltimore County better start planning another ceremony to welcome home an Olympic gold medalist.
Double-amputee swimmer Jessica Long, a member of the Dundalk-Eastfield Swim Club, won a gold medal in the women's 100-meter S8 (disability classification) freestyle race in the Paralympic Games in Athens on Monday.
Long, who turned 12 on Feb. 29, was the youngest athlete named to the U.S. team. She immediately put to rest the notion that these Games would be a learning experience for her.
Her father, Steve Long, said right before leaving for Athens that his daughter was not a favorite to medal, but it was Jessica's hope to do so.
Stephanie Weisenborn, her Dundalk-Eastfield coach, thought otherwise.
"I told her she was going to do it," the Dundalk Avenue resident said Monday after being told the good news about her precocious swimmer. "I told her she was coming home with at least one gold medal."
Weisenborn said she gave Long a little stuffed bear before she left for Greece: "It was one of those Build-a-Bears, where you put the wish inside it. A medal is what I wished for her."
Told that Long was third at the 50-meter split and poured it on in the final 50 to win by 19-hundredths of a second, Weisenborn laughed.
"She always comes from behind," she said. "She scares me to death when she does that."
Long, a Middle River resident, beat 31-year-old Keren Or Leybovitch of Israel, who held the world and Paralympic records coming into the race. The bronze medal went to Cecilie Drabsch of Norway.
Long's winning time of one minute, 9.67 seconds beat Leybovitch's old Paralympic mark of 1:10.25, set at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
When asked after the race how it felt to win Paralympic gold, Long replied, "I'm just trying to catch my breath," according to a press release issued by the U.S. Olympic Committee on Monday.
Reached at the Olympic pool Tuesday, Long was thrilled with her performance.
"Oh my gosh, it was so awesome," she said amid the din of competition. The medal ceremony "was so amazing because I knew I was representing my country. That's my flag, my anthem."
She said she knew she was behind at 50 meters and "I gave it the rest of what I had. I didn't want to finish third or second, I wanted first."
Long has come a long way in the world of competitive swimming in a relatively short period of time.
She started organized swimming in September 2002, when she joined DESC. She took to the water like the proverbial fish, and did well in local meets against able-bodied swimmers.
In just the past two years, she set 11 American records and two Pan-American records for swimmers with disabilities prior to setting yet another benchmark at these Games. And she's not finished yet.
Long races again in the 400-meter freestyle on Friday and the 50-meter free on Sunday.
Weisenborn feels that Long's gold medal performance in the 100-meter free could substantially help her chances of being named to a relay team.
"I never know how they pick those, but I would think she has a chance to be named to one," she said.
The local coach said Long was doing quite well in the butterfly during training sessions and could be named to a butterfly leg in a medley, or to a 4x100 freestyle relay.
Long said Tuesday that she had been told she would race on just that relay, scheduled for Wednesday night.
Swim team manager Julie O'Neill said it might have been a shock to the rest of the world that Long took gold in her first international race, "but not to us."
She said Long's progress over the four-week training camp held prior to the Games put her right where she needed to be at just the right time.
"We've only had her in the national rankings for maybe a year, but she wasn't in the top four or five" that would be targeted by the competition, she said.
Long put the competition on notice after her Monday preliminary, however. She won her heat and posted the best time of all swimmers, which earned her the coveted no. 4 lane in the finals.
"After the preliminaries, the reaction from her competitiors was kind of like 'who is this kid and where did she come from?'" O'Neill said with a laugh.
Back home, her supporters knew all along she would succeed.
"I'm just so proud of her," Weisenborn said. "I'm sitting here with a big smile on my face."
She said Long is very coachable and had worked in particular to fix a problem that Weisenborn is sure helped the swimmer secure her gold medal.
Long just out-touched Leybovitch at the wall, using her long fingers to her advantage.
"She had the tendency to clutch that one hand, especially when she got tired," Weisenborn said. "We worked really hard on fixing that."
Weisenborn said Long has expressed an interest in coming back to the DESC when the Paralympic dust settles.
"I hope she comes back and I'm hoping we can keep her interested," she said. "She swims for the fun of it. If she's pushed too hard she loses interest."
The teacher who can now boast of coaching an Olympic champion paused for a long moment, lost in the glory she feels for her star swimmer.
"She's awesome. The kid just amazes me."
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