Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long has won 12 gold medals but nothing makes her feel more accomplished than being a role model.
“Winning gold medals is incredible and obviously it’s what I want to do, but there’s something so special about having a little girl who has just lost her leg from cancer come up and tell me I’m her hero,” the four-time Paralympian told PEOPLE at the Olympic Media Summit in March.
Long is proud to inspire other young girls with amputations feel beautiful because she didn’t always feel that way about herself.
The 24-year-old was born in Siberia with a condition called fibular hemimelia, a rare birth defect where part or all of the fibula, ankle and foot bones don’t develop. She was sent to a Russian orphanage as a baby and adopted by Beth and Steve Long of Baltimore, Maryland at 13 months.
A few months after moving to the U.S., Long had the first of 24 surgeries that ultimately led to both legs being amputated below the knee. “I’ve always just been really really active and I never wanted my legs to hold me back,” Long said.
At age 10, Long’s grandmother noticed how much the young girl loved swimming in her pool and suggested she join a swim team.
“I fell in love with this idea of becoming a swimmer,” Long recalled. “I knew two strokes at the time but I went and I just loved racing these girls with legs.”
“I loved how they treated me, that I wasn’t just this disabled girl on the team, they looked at me as a friend and a competitor first,” she continued.
Just two years after joining the swim team, Long qualified for the 2004 Paralympics Games in Athens, Greece. There, she took home three gold medals and was youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic team at 12 years old. “That shocked everyone, even myself,” she said.
Long has competed in every Games since, and brought home 14 medals – 12 of them gold. Competing in the games has given Long more than just a full trophy case, it has helped her to accept who she is.
“Before the Paralympic movement I definitely didn’t like wearing shorts because people would stare at me,” she said. “Then, as I started going to Paralympic meets and seeing how the older swimmers were acting with their prosthetics, I realized it’s not a big deal.”
“It took me years to realize that if I act ashamed and I try to hide them people kind of react the same way. But if I wear my shorts or a cute summer dress and I show off my legs and I’m willing to talk about it, people are engaged and they want to know about my story,” she says.
Now, with this summer’s Paralympic Games in Rio expected to get more attention than ever before, Long hopes that she and her fellow athletes will be able to share that lesson with other young people struggling to adjust to feeling different.
“I remember being a little girl and having my heroes like Erin Popavich who was a Paralympic athlete and still is,” she said. “So I know how important it is to have role models and I know we all hope to be role models for young girl Paralympic athletes.”