Paralympic Games
24 August - 5 September 2021

Multiple medal winner Jessica Long reveals 'extra vertebra' so swims in pain

Olympic legend Michael Phelps sent good luck message to his friend before Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games 01 Sep 2021
A woman posing for a photo with a smile on her face while holding a gold medal in her right hand and a mascot in her left hand
Adding to the medal collection
ⒸBuda Mendes/Getty Images

Constant pain has been Jessica Long’s companion for the last three years and is the reason why the American swimmer expressed ‘shock and surprise’ at adding a silver medal to her amazing Paralympic collection.

Long, who received a good luck message from friend and Olympic legend Michael Phelps before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, has discovered she has an extra vertebra in her back.

"It’s been a really challenging five years with breaststroke,” Long said. “In 2018 I really hurt my back, my lower back, and it's been a couple of years where we finally found out that I have an extra vertebra in my back.

“So it's been hard to train it, I can only train it just a little bit before I'm in some pain. So I'm honestly just really surprised and shocked at the results. The time wasn't really there, it's definitely not my best time in breaststroke, and the goal was to get the medal or to get on the podium.”

Long is one of the pin-up stars of Para sport and competing in her fifth Games. Yet the ambition still burns bright for an athlete with a collection of 27 medals.

She has seen the changes in perception and the growth of the Paralympic Games, capped with the ultimate validation of Phelps.

“There was a time in 2008 where no one really wanted to talk to the Paralympic athletes. I remember doing some media and (was) just kind of being pushed to the side.

“And when I had the opportunity to train with Michael Phelps and (his coach) Bob Bowman, that’s when I realised that I am just as good as the Olympic athletes and I don't ever have to question it.

“Just even having the respect of the Olympic athletes before I came out here, Michael wrote me good luck and that he was rooting for me and cheering for me and that was a really big moment, especially being a Paralympic athlete, just to have the respect of the greatest Olympian."

So what motivates the veteran?

“When I really struggle to get out of bed, or when I really feel like giving up, I try to go back to the little 12-year-old girl at her first Paralympic Games who never gave up. And that really gives me motivation just because even though I'm 29, I still want to make her proud.

"That really helps me reset and refocus and when those bad days come, I let them come. It’s very normal and natural to have those days," said Long after her 100m breaststroke SB7 event at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Wednesday.