Jessica Long's passion for swimming began at an early age.
"I sit down in a chair, and I take off my two heavy little prosthetic legs and I crawl on my knees to the edge of the pool and I just jumped in," she recalled to Today's Jenna Bush Hager, "and I just instantly loved it."
What started as fun times in her grandparents' pool turned into a career as a 23-time Paralympic medalist.
"I just had...such determination to just prove to everyone that I could do it," she shared. "And I think that even stems from my adoption, just wanting to prove that I was worthy, that I was enough."
Originally from Siberia, Jessica was diagnosed as a baby with fibular hemimelia, a condition that for her meant the absence of numerous bones in her legs and feet. An American family, the Longs, adopted her from an orphanage when she was 13 months old.
"We had seen a picture of Jessica ahead of time, so when they called, we just knew she was the one for us," her adoptive mother, Beth Long, said. "Like, it didn't matter what the disability was. We just knew she was meant for us."
Eventually, Jessica underwent 25 surgeries, the first of which took place when she was 18 months old to amputate her legs below the knees and fit her with prosthetics.
"It was so hard, like so incredibly hard," the athlete remembered. "There was so much pain. Every time I grew, I had to go back in for a surgery. And I remember just being really, really scared but also, like, knowing exactly what to do. Like as a 3-year-old, I knew to crawl on top of the operating table."
According to Today, Jessica joined a swim team at age 10. Two years later, she competed at the Paralympic Games in Athens, where she won her first gold medal. She went on to compete at the Paralympic Games in Beijing, London and Rio and has a total of 13 gold, six silver and four bronze medals, making her the second most-decorated U.S. Paralympian of all time.
Jessica shared her story in a Toyota Super Bowl commercial, which aired during the 2020 Olympics, and in a new book titled Pure Grit. Fans will also see her compete at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, which open next week on Aug. 24 and close Sept. 5. And while she's looking to add to her medal count, she's already a winner.
"I love the gold and that's what I'm obviously going for," she told Today. "But if I never bring home another gold in my life, I am more than enough. And maybe I can say that because I have won some gold. But also, like you know, if you're not enough without a gold medal, you'll never be enough with one."
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