Swimmer Long finishes Paralympics with three gold
by Marge Neal
Dundalk-Eastfield Swim Club member Jessica Long finished her Paralympics experience in Athens, Greece, on a bit of a down note. But her fifth-place finish in the 50-meter freestyle Sunday did nothing to tarnish gold medal performances in her three previous races.
The youngest athlete - at 12 - on the U.S. Paralympics Team will return from the birthplace of the Olympics on Friday with three of the swim team's 16 gold medals and a wealth of experience that will undoubtedly make her a force to be reckoned with in future competitions.
As reported in last week's Eagle, double amputee Long stunned her competition when she set a new Paralympic record on Sept. 20 in the 100-meter S8 (disability classification) freestyle. The Middle River resident barely out-touched then-world and Paralympic record holder Keren Or Leybovitch of Israel to take gold in her first-ever international race.
Two days later, she propelled the U.S. 4x100-meter women's freestyle relay team to victory over Canada.
Long, who earned a place on the relay based upon her performance in the 100-meter free, swam the third leg of the race and put her team into first place to stay.
Canada was ahead by nearly two seconds when Long entered the water. When she finished her leg, she handed a lead of just over four seconds to anchor swimmer Kelly Crowley, 27, of California. Canadian anchor Stephanie Dixon ate up three seconds of that lead, but the Americans hung on for the win. Other members of the U.S. team were Erin Popovich, 19, of Montana, who finished the Games with seven gold medals - in seven attempts - and Ashley Owens, 14, of Georgia.
The relay was a "34-point" race, which meant that coaches had a choice of entrants as long as the combined sum of disability classifications totaled 34 points.
In individual Paralympic races, athletes compete against others with similar disabilities. Relays combine classifications.
"One of things that amazed me was the variety of the disabilities on this team," swim team volunteer Tara Dugan said in a phone interview shortly after the race last week. Popovich has dwarfism, Owens has cerebral palsy and Crowley is missing most of her right arm due to a birth defect, Dugan said.
Long won her third gold medal of the Games on Friday when she led the field in the 400-meter freestyle from start to finish en route to her second Paralympic record of the meet.
In a performance reminiscent of her 100-meter free, Long won her 400 heat by more than 19 seconds and posted the best time of all preliminary swimmers. The next fastest preliminary time, by Heidi Andreasen of the Faroe Islands, was nearly 15 seconds slower than the eventual winner.
Long again claimed lane no. 4 for the 400 final. She had a miniscule lead at the end of the first 50-meter lap, increased that slightly by the 100-meter split and never looked back. When she touched the wall at 5:07.88 - shaving her preliminary time by five seconds - she finished more than 15 seconds ahead of silver medalist Lichelle Clarke of Australia and had obliterated the old Paralympic record of 5:11.47, set at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics by Australia's Priya Cooper.
"I sort of knew I could do it," Long said Tuesday from her room at the Olympic Village on her third and final gold of the Games.
Even though she left Baltimore with the hope of bringing medals home, she admitted Tuesday that she was "shocked" to win her first gold.
"I was very surprised," she said. "I had no idea I was that good. ... To be first in the world ..." Her voice trailed off as if she was still trying to come to grips with her accomplishment.
The novice competitor's confidence in the 400 was boosted by her earlier wins and good practice sessions.
Long wasn't that disappointed by her fifth-place finish in the 50-meter free: "I'm more of a distance swimmer. Because I don't have feet, it's hard to get a good start off the block.
"I have three gold medals. I'm very happy."
She said the athletes had a party recently, "and I stayed up until like 2, dancing and having a lot of fun."
Long has made a lot of new friends from across the world and said, "The Australians are the friendliest."
The Games came to a close Tuesday night with an altered ending because of a traffic accident in Athens on Monday that killed seven schoolchildren on their way to the Games.
Long said she and others were disappointed that the closing wouldn't be the happy celebration it was intended to be but understand the sensitivity behind the decision. Most of the celebratory segments of the ceremony were canceled in deference to the families of the children who were killed, according to the Paralympics Web site.
Long is looking forward to taking a couple of weeks off from the pool when she gets home, but is returning to the DESC and plans to resume training for Beijing in 2008.
She said she and the other athletes have been treated "very well" at the Olympic Village but she misses her bed and her colorful room at home.
"The beds here are like a foot wide and very stiff," she said. "I've fallen out a couple of times."
She also said everything at the Village is white, and she misses the bright colors of her blue, green and purple bedroom.
She already knows where she will display her Paralympic medals.
"There's a shelf above the head of my bed where I put a lot of my special things," she said. "I'm going to put them there."
And she has one more wish for when she comes home:
"I really want to meet Michael Phelps!"
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