On February 7, nearly 92 million Americans spent their Sunday evening watching Super Bowl LV. During the breaks, all eyes were on the popular commercials. One of the ads featured an American Olympic swimmer who shared an incredible story that moved viewers to tears.
The swimmer’s name is Jessica Long and – as a 12-time gold medalist – she is the second-most decorated U.S. Paralympian in history. Her story, however, is much more than athletic success or Toyota’s 60-second spot. Jessica is an adoptee whose path defies all odds. Read on, as we share Jessica Long’s inspiring story and how adoption has played a key role in helping her become the star athlete she is today.
The Start of the Journey
Jessica was born Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova on February 29, 1992 in Bratsk, Russia – deep in the heart of Siberia. She was born with Fibular Hemimelia, a rare condition which affects about 1 in 40,000 births. Jessica was born without fibulas, ankles, heels, and most of the other bones in her feet. With this condition, her biological parents (teenagers at the time) could not care for and support her. However, it did not stop her adoptive parents from bringing her home to Baltimore, Maryland. The American couple, Beth and Steven Long, adopted Jessica when she was just 13 months old, along with her brother Josh from the same orphanage.
“We wanted to adopt, and when we saw a picture of little Jessica we fell in love,” says Jessica’s adoptive mother Beth in an interview. “After Steve went to Russia, he told me about Josh, and we loved him too, and he and Jessica came into our family.”
The big changes did not stop there. When Jessica was just 18 months old, her legs had to be amputated below the knees. This enabled her to get fitted for prosthetics, learn to walk, and become more active. She has had more than a dozen surgeries in her lifetime.
Just Keep Swimming
Despite her physical disabilities, Jessica was an active child with a big imagination. At a young age, Jessica started swimming in her grandparents’ pool after Sunday church service. She liked to pretend she was a mermaid. This pretend play soon grew into a serious passion. By the age of 10, Jessica was swimming competitively. When she was 12, she made her Paralympic debut in the 2004 Athens Games. She earned three gold medals in her first trip to the games.
Jessica went on to compete in the next three Paralympics, bringing her medal total to 23. For a while, she trained in the same group as Michael Phelps under coach Bob Bowman. The only swimmer with more Paralympic medals among Americans is Trisha Zorn, with an overall record of 55.
Returning to Her Birthplace
In 2013, Jessica traveled back to Russia with her younger sister to reconnect with her roots. They visited Jessica’s orphanage in Irkutsk, where she first met her adoptive parents in 1993. They also had the amazing opportunity to meet her birth parents, who were teenagers when she was born.
An NBC Olympics production team followed Jessica and her sister on their three-day trip to the adoption center, followed by an 18-hour train ride to what would have been her Siberian hometown. The story was shared in a documentary titled “Long Way Home: The Jessica Long Story.” It debuted, fittingly, during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.
“When I first see my Russian family, I want them to know that I’m not angry with them, that I’m not upset that they gave me up for adoption,” Long shared in the documentary, before a tearful, hug-filled reunion. “I think that was really brave, and I don’t know what I would have done if I was in her situation, at 16 and having this disabled baby that they knew that they couldn’t take care of. I want to tell her when I see her that, if anything, I have so much love for her, my mom, because she gave me life.”
Jessica’s journey back to Russia is one that takes her more than 7,000 miles from the world she grew up knowing, but it was still a homecoming of sorts. It certainly served as a test for the young adoptee – physically, mentally, and emotionally – but it was also an important one that brought her face-to-face with her roots. Her story is one that reminds us of the importance of adoptees knowing their story, to fill in the missing puzzle pieces and form their identity.
Meeting one’s birth parents after more than two decades can be a freeing experience for adoptees as well as for the birthparent. It can provide peace of mind and reassurance of self-identity. In the end, we know that Jessica was loved by two sets of parents. As NBC Sports puts it: “…it leads her to a profound [personal] discovery, her two [halves’] have helped make her the whole individual that she is – Jessica Titiana Long.” It certainly can help her birth parents as well to know that she is loved and has had the amazing life of opportunity that they hoped for her. Her parents honored them by saving the name the birthparents gave her and incorporated it into her new name.
The film is available to watch on Peacock, NBC’s free streaming service. Jessica is expected to compete in her fifth Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
If you would like to learn more about adoption, contact Adoptions With Love. Call us any time of day, any day of the week, at 800-722-7731, text us confidentially at 617-777-0072, or contact us online.