With 23 Paralympic medals including 13 gold, Jessica Long has already built one of the most successful careers in Paralympic history, despite being just 29. That is owed mostly to her remarkably early start; she won three swimming gold medals at the Athens 2004 Paralympics at just 12 years old. Long’s compelling story, from being born in Siberia without properly formed legs to being adopted as an infant by an American family, was shared with the nation in February in a Super Bowl commercial.
Get to know Jessica Long ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics.
Early life and adoption
Long was born Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova in 1992 to a teenaged couple in the northern Russian province of Siberia. She was born with fibular hemimelia, a genetic abnormality which caused her lower legs to develop without fibulas, ankles, heels, and most bones in her feet.
Long was given up for adoption by her biological parents and, at 13 months old, was adopted by Steve and Elizabeth Long of Baltimore, Maryland. Five months later, her lower legs were amputated so that she could learn to walk on prosthetic legs.
Start in swimming
Growing up, Long’s parents refused to let her condition keep her from being active and playing sports. She practiced gymnastics, basketball and rock climbing, and would swim in her grandparents’ pool after church on Sundays. She liked the swimming best because it made her feel like a mermaid under the water.
When she was 10 years old, Long joined her first competitive swim team. Within two years, she not only qualified for the Athens 2004 Paralympics, but won three gold medals at age 12. Such early success was exciting for Long, though she later understood that it gave her a false sense of identity where her entire life would be measured in medals. When she won her first bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics she recalls asking her mom, "do you still love me?"
Long competes in the S8, SB7 and SM8 classifications, which are for athletes with a physical disability. The “S” prefix is for freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events, while “SB” covers breaststroke and “SM” covers individual medley.
Long has become an advocate for fairness in Paralympic classification, speaking out in 2019 when she felt that the S8 category had been expanded to include athletes with insufficiently-limiting impairments. She said at the time, “Classification is always tough because you never want to come off as a sore loser...but I do really stand for the next generation and that if something is not done, it will ruin Paralympic swimming.”
Super Bowl Commercial
Long was featured in a memorable Toyota commercial that ran during the 2021 Super Bowl. It shows her swimming through scenes of her life, from the Russian orphanage to being adopted by her parents to winning Paralympic gold medals. Long cried when she heard a commercial was going to be based around her life and again when she watched the spot for the first time. "I hope that there's the next little girl or boy who wants to be a future Paralympian after seeing this spot. I think that's what excites me so much is that it is possible, right? It's totally possible to dream big."