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What I Learned from My Father: Love Has No Borders

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Jessica Long

Being a father can mean more than one thing as 12-time Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long tells Shape. Here, the 22-year-old swimming superstar shares her heart-warming story about having two dads.

On Leap Day in 1992, a pair of unwed teens in Siberia gave birth to me and named me Tatiana. I was born with fibular hemimelia (meaning I didn't have fibulas, ankles, heels, and most of the other bones in my feet) and they quickly realized that they couldn't afford to take care of me. Doctors advised them to give me up for adoption. They begrudgingly listened. Thirteen months later, in 1993, Steve Long (pictured) came all the way from Baltimore to pick me up. He and his wife Beth already had two kids, but wanted a larger family. It was kismet when someone at their local church mentioned that this little girl in Russia, who had a birth defect, was looking for a home. They knew instantly that I was there daughter, Jessica Tatiana as they would later call me.

Before my dad hopped on a plane to a post-Cold War Russia, they had made arrangements to adopt a three-year-old boy too from the same orphanage. They figured, “If we're going all the way to Russia for one child, why not get another?” Though Josh wasn't my biological brother, he might as well have been. We were so malnourished that we were about the same size—we looked like twins. When I think about what my dad did, traveling so far to a foreign country to get two small babies, I'm blown away by his bravery.

Five months after coming home, my parents decided, along with the help of doctors, that my life would be better if they amputated both of my legs below the knee. Immediately, I was outfitted with prostheses, and like most kids, I learned to walk before I could run—then I was unstoppable. I was so active growing up, always running around in the backyard and jumping on the trampoline, which my parents called PE class. The Long kids were home-schooled—all six of us. Yup, my parents miraculously had two more after us. So it was a pretty chaotic and fun household. I had so much energy, my parents eventually enrolled me in swimming in 2002.

For so many years, driving to and from the pool (sometimes as early as 6 a.m.) were my favorite times with dad. During the hour round-trip in the car, my dad and I would talk about how things were going, upcoming meets, ways to improve my times, and more. If I was feeling frustrated, he'd always listen and give me good advice, like how to have a good attitude. He told me that I was a role model, especially to my younger sister who had just started swimming. I took that to heart. We got really close over swimming. Even to this day, talking about it with him is still something special.

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In 2004, just minutes before they announced the U.S. Paralympic team for the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, my dad told me, “It's okay, Jess. You're only 12. There's always Beijing when you're 16.” As an obnoxious 12-year-old, all I could say was, “No, dad. I'm going to make it.” And when they announced my name, he was the first person I looked at and we both had this expression on our faces like, “Oh, my gosh!!” But of course, I said to him, “I told you so.” I always thought I was a mermaid. The water was a place where I could take off my legs and feel most comfortable.

My parents have since joined me at the Summer Paralympic Games in Athens, Beijing, and London. There's nothing better than looking up at the fans and seeing my family. I know I wouldn't be where I am today without their love and support. They truly are my rock, which is why, I guess, I didn't really think much about my biological parents. At the same time, my parents never let me forget my heritage. We have this “Russia Box” that my dad filled with items from his trip. We'd pull it down with Josh every now and then, and go through its contents, including these wooden Russian dolls and a necklace that he promised to me for my 18th birthday.

Six months before the London Olympics, during an interview, I said in passing, “I'd love to meet my Russian family one day.” Part of me meant it, but I don't know if or when I would have pursued tracking them down. Russian journalists caught wind of this and took it upon themselves to make the reunion happen. While I was competing in London that August, these same Russian reporters began bombarding me with Twitter messages saying that they had found my Russian family. At first, I thought it was a joke. I didn't know what to believe, so I ignored it.

Back home in Baltimore after the Games, I was sitting at the kitchen table telling my family about what had happened and we ended up finding a video online of my so-called “Russian family.” It was really crazy to see these strangers calling themselves “my family” in front of my real family. I was too emotionally drained from competing in London to know what to think. So again, I didn't do anything. It wasn't until six months or so later, when NBC approached us about filming my family reunion to air around the 2014 Sochi Olympics, that I gave it some real thought and agreed to do it.

In December 2013, I went over to Russia with my little sister, Hannah and an NBC crew to see the orphanage where I was adopted. We met the woman who had first handed me over to my father and she said she remembered seeing a tremendous amount of love in his eyes. About two days later, we went to meet my biological parents, who I later found out had gotten married and had three kids. "Wow," I thought. This was getting crazier. It never occurred to me that my parents were still together, let alone that I had even more siblings.

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Walking toward my biological parents' house, I could hear them weeping loudly inside. About 30 different people, including cameramen, were outside watching (and filming) me during this moment and all I could say to myself and Hannah, who was right behind me making sure that I didn't fall, was “Don't cry. Don't slip.” It was -20 degrees out and the ground was covered in snow. When my young 30-something parents stepped outside, I started crying and immediately hugged them. All while this was happening, NBC captured my dad at home in Maryland wiping his eyes and embracing my mom.

For the next four hours, I shared lunch with my biological mom, Natalia, and biological dad, Oleg, as well as my full-blooded sister, Anastasia, plus three translators and some cameramen in this very crammed house. Natalia couldn't keep her eyes off of me and wouldn't let go of my hand. It was really sweet. We share a lot of facial features. We stared in a mirror together and pointed them out along with Anastasia. But I think look most like Oleg. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. It was surreal.

They asked to see my prostheses and kept saying over and over again that my parents in America were heroes. They knew, 21 years ago, they could have never cared for a disabled baby. They explained that I had a better chance of survival in an orphanage—or at least that's what the doctors had told them. At one point, Oleg pulled me and a translator aside and told me that he loved me and that he was so proud of me. Then he gave me a hug and a kiss. It was such a special moment.

Until we can speak the same language, communicating with my Russian family, some 6,000 miles away, will be challenging. But in the meantime, we have a great relationship on Facebook where we share photos. I would love to see them again in Russia one day, especially for more than four hours, but my main focus right now is getting ready for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, Brazil. We'll see what happens after that. For now, I take comfort in knowing that I have two sets of parents who truly love me. And while Oleg is my father, Steve will always be my dad.

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