Every elite athlete is competitive, but my competitiveness is borderline crazy. I always want to be No. 1, even when it comes to finishing an ice cream first or walking through the door first. It's no fun to play board games with me, because I have to win, every time.
So when you put me in the pool, I absolutely love competing for first place. When I was 12, I'd only been swimming for two years when I won my first Paralympic gold medal, in the 100-meter freestyle, at the Athens Games. Midway through the race I was trailing the leaders, and when I went to turn I remember thinking, I didn't come all the way here to get second. I swam as hard as I could, and when I got to the wall, I had won by one tenth of a second.
I was so young that I wasn't sure if it was okay to celebrate by waving my finger with the No. 1 sign. So I just smiled. But believe me, I was happy to be the champion.
I'm one of six kids, so I was always competing with my siblings, even when I was really young. My parents adopted my brother Joshua and me from the same orphanage in Russia when he was 3 and I was 13 months old. Everyone thought we were twins though, because he was so small and malnourished. I was born without a fibula and some other bones in my legs, so at 18 months old, the decision was made to amputate both of my legs below the knees. It wasn't like I ever had a full leg that I was missing, though. It had really only been a foot and a few toes on each side.
Within two weeks I was up walking around, and I didn't want to do physical therapy. I wanted to do it all on my own. I was always moving and climbing on everything (the refrigerator, the banister, whatever I could find!), so my parents put me in gymnastics when I was 4. I absolutely loved it, and I did it for six years, flipping and landing on my knees.
But my parents started to worry about the damage that could do to my knees, and I couldn't imagine wearing my very unstable prosthetic legs on a balance beam. I needed a new sport, and swimming seemed like a perfect fit. We'd been going to my grandparents' pool every Sunday, and I loved the feel of the water. I'd pretend I was a mermaid swimming around (come to think of it, I still do this), and I was always the first one in and the last one out.
My parents enrolled me in a local swim club, even though I only knew freestyle and backstroke. I literally thought I was going to die the first time I did butterfly. But I loved the team dynamic with the other girls, because no one treated me like I was disabled. I was the girl keeping up with them without my legs, and sometimes beating them. It really helped me -- you need to be around people who are "able-bodied" and are going to push you. I loved it when I would get out of the pool and people would say, Wow, you're fast! I didn't even know you didn't have legs!
A couple of years later, I found myself at the 2004 Paralympic trials after an official told my parents at a swim meet that my times could potentially qualify me for the U.S. team. My mom and dad tried to prepare me going into the meet, saying it might be better to aim for Beijing in 2008, when I'd have more experience. I was only good at freestyle at that point, but I told them, "I'm going to make this team." I was 10th in the world though, and only the top three qualify, so I needed to drop a lot of time to make it.
And I did. I went into that meet and I swam my heart out, setting the American record in the 400-meter freestyle -- and making the 2004 Paralympic team.
Since I was 12, there was no pressure in Athens. No one was expecting anything from me, and I just wanted to have fun. I didn't have any music or rituals in the ready room before I raced -- I just sat there and didn't worry about anything. It was my first international trip and I was just excited to be away from my parents and hanging out with my friends.
When I got that first gold in the 100-meter freestyle final, my competitiveness started to really come out, and I wanted to keep winning. In the end, I earned three gold medals and got a taste of how cool it was to compete at the highest level of our sport.
By the time Beijing 2008 rolled around I was no longer the underdog. I had tons of pressure -- and I put so much pressure on myself as well. I wanted seven gold medals, and I told everyone that was my goal, but I didn't deliver. I still got six medals -- four of them gold -- but the first question everyone asked was, "What happened?" And in my head I thought I had failed.
Now I look back and see all the things I did wrong in Beijing: going out walking when I should have been resting; not eating the best food; and spending so much time having fun with my friends. It's so easy to get caught up in everything else and lose focus. Let's just say it was a learning experience.
Going into London, I've changed everything. I moved to Colorado Springs and got a new coach, Dave Denniston, who was my teammate in Beijing. I'm stronger and faster than ever before. I'm training or strength training or rehabbing all day long. We're up at altitude and swim practice is harder than it's ever been.
I truly think I can blow everyone away with what I'm going to accomplish this year, but my specific goal is staying secret this time. Just know that I plan on winning a whole bunch of gold in London.
This is Jessica Long's debut blog for espnW. Check back next month for more on her training and her take on the U.S. Paralympic trials.