US Para swimming star Jessica Long said it is rare for her to get emotional. She never even got teary eyed standing on the top of the medal podium at the Paralympics listening to her national anthem, something she has done on a regular basis since she was a 12-year-old in her first Games at Athens 2004.
But the tears have not stopped flowing after watching an emotional 60-second Super Bowl commercial that told her incredible story. The National Football League (NFL) championship – which pitted the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on 7 February— is one of the most-viewed sporting events around the world, making ad spots competitive.
The ad from long-time International Paralympic Committee partner Toyota highlights her journey and accomplishments. Born in Siberia with a rare condition that meant her legs had to be amputated, she was adopted by a US family from a Russian orphanage when she was a year old.
“It’s such an emotional spot,” Long said. “It’s so raw. The way Toyota was able to capture all of that, it brings all of these emotions out that I kind of forgot about.”
Long said the ad perfectly captures her life’s story in one minute. There was her discomfort with not having her legs, the hurt early on from the adoption not being able to talk about it and swimming always being there as her oasis.
“I didn’t start out the sport thinking that I was going to win gold medals or to be in a Super Bowl commercial. I started this sport because I truly loved the water. It was a place that I felt really free.”
The commercial shows a little girl on crutches and being in a locker room feeling all alone.
“I was nervous and scared at times to be the only girl missing legs on the swim team. That’s really intimidating sometimes when you don’t see anybody that looks like you. I just had such determination and a spirit to keep fighting.”
Heading into her fifth Paralympics in Tokyo and now 28, Long has won 23 Paralympic medals including 13 golds, making her the second most decorated Paralympian in US history, behind fellow swimmer Trischa Zorn (46 medals, 32 golds).
Still, she finds it hard to believe that Toyota is showcasing her story during the Super Bowl, one of the most watched television sport spectacles, just like the company did in the middle of the big game in the past with two other Paralympic stars Amy Purdy and Lauren Woolstencroft.
“It’s been 18 years in the making, 18 years for this type of coverage for the Paralympics and for my story. I feel so underserving,” Long said.
She added: “I was there (at the Games) when I was 12 and not a lot of people knew about the Paralympics. I would be happy for anybody to showcase the Paralympics but the fact they chose me for this spot just feels like the biggest honour.”
While she is used to being on display and swimming in front of thousands of people, she said Super Bowl Sunday is a day she will never forget.
“It’s one of my top three moments. I would say winning a gold medal is extraordinary because nobody can take it away from you. There are moments like when I was training with the greatest Olympian of all-time, Michael (Phelps), who called me J.Lo, that was very special and then being in the Super Bowl. It’s just so cool.”
Long went to train with Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman before the Rio 2016 Paralympics because she wanted to battle what she calls a stigma that exists where some think Paralympians are not as good as Olympic athletes.
“My biggest hope is that one day we never have to explain what the Paralympics are.”
Long said the IPC’s new mission to use its platform to drive social change under the slogan “Change Starts with Sport” really speaks to her and her story.
“Getting into sport gave me the confidence to share my story with the rest of the world and to change the world’s viewpoint of disability,” the Baltimore-native explained. “I truly feel like I was given this life to share my story.”
She watched the big game from the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs, wearing waterproof mascara and FaceTiming her family to see their reaction to the commercial.
“(It shows) how selfless my parents were. I think they are crazy in the best way. They wanted a little baby from Siberia, Russia. They had two children already. I just think the amount of love was super special.”
She hopes anybody who tunes in will take away one message in particular.
“There is hope and strength in all of us and more than ever (this pandemic year), we need hope.” Long continued, “I hope people see my story and they feel inspired to do that thing that they’ve been scared of - that thing no doubt is kind of scary but then they realise that they’ve had the strength all along.”