Delivered to America on the Wings of a Prayer

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"It was a dreary building, the walls were covered with tar roofing shingles, and it was really cold--some of the windows were missing or broken and the wind was howling through them. The toilets didn't flush, so they had hoses in them. Some of the lights were burned out. They sat the children on pots and tied them to the inside of the cribs because they had no diapers. They must have had 200 children, and throughout the orphanage they put three babies in each crib," remembers Steve Long.

A Golden Bundle of Joy

Jessica's Bio

Name at birth : Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova
Birthday : February 29, 1992 (a leap-year baby!)
Age : Three if you only count the leap years!
Family : Two brothers, three sisters, and one sister-in-law
Grade : Seventh
Hobbies : Being with friends, riding bikes, jumping on the trampoline, cooking, crafts, and organizing my bedroom
Favorite color : Baby blue
Favorite food : Chinese, but steak, corn, and mashed potatoes run a close second!
Biggest fan (not family) : Jonas Seeberg, CP, of Maryland Real Life Designs, LLC. He went to Athens with us!

How she came to us is as much an inspiration as her breathtaking performance in the 2004 Paralympic Games held in Athens, Greece. Jessica Long, America's youngest Paralympic athlete, can stand proud with a fistful of three gold medals and a heart full of dreams for a future beyond anyone's imagination.

On a cold gray day in Siberia, in a broken-down communist orphanage, an American family would find a bundled treasure tied to a cot with two other babies. Steve Long, Jessica's father, recalls, "There were women caretakers for the children, and they seemed to be caring, but with nearly 200 children in the orphanage, they were clearly overworked. Jessica was in a caretaker's arms when I arrived to pick her up. Her blonde hair was real short but she was so pretty."

Beth and Steve Long had heard about the babies in Russia through an adoption class. Beth explained, "We had two children already, so we wanted to adopt children who were less likely to be adopted. We found Jessica and Joshua in the same orphanage." The only information the Longs have about why the children were left at the orphanage is the relinquishment letters from single mothers who could not care for them.

Joshua was born with a cleft lip and palate, while Jessica was born without fibulas, all the bones in her ankles were absent, and she was missing most of the bones in her feet. The Longs realized both children needed extensive medical care, and they were completely aware of the responsibility they were about to accept.

Determination, Dreams, and Desire

The Bundle of Joy
The Bundle of Joy

Jessica underwent amputation surgery in 1993, when she was just 18 months old, only five months after coming to America to live with the Long family. She was immediately fitted with her prosthetic legs and within a few weeks, she learned to walk for the very first time. "I think it was easier for her to learn this way; she had never known life being able to use her God-given legs," says Steve.

Many of our Paralympic athletes who are amputees have known life being able to use their God-given legs. Shea Cowart, three-time medalist and world-record holder in track and field at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, became a bilateral below-knee amputee at age six. Jami Goldman, 1996 Paralympic athlete and former world-record holder in track and field, became a bilateral amputee as a young adult after suffering from frostbite when stranded in a blizzard with a friend. April Holmes, medalist in track and field in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, became an amputee as an adult, following a traumatic accident. The accomplishments of these women as elite athletes cannot be diminished by the fact that they once had use of their legs, but we can marvel at how traumatic loss did not deter their determination to reach beyond their wildest hopes, to strive for Paralympic gold.

The Competitor
The Competitor

As pointed out in this month's "Perspective" column by Tabi King of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), Del Mar, California, many children dream of participating in the Olympic Games. With Jessica Long, who never learned to walk until she had prostheses, life was no different. Jessica doesn't see herself as being different than other tween'-aged kids. Jessica has tried cheerleading, gymnastics, and ice skating, but when she found that she could not advance further in these sports, she kept her mind open for another avenue through which she could feed her competitive spirit.

Humble Even in Victory

Just two years ago, Jessica found herself standing on her knees on the starting block of the Dundalk-Eastfield Swim Club in Baltimore County, Maryland. Her mother remembers, "She was swimming with able-bodied kids and was doing well against them." Her talent in the pool apparently drew the attention of some people who work with disabled swimmers and they encouraged her to enter national disability meets. Once Jessica hit the pool in competition with other disabled athletes, she started setting records almost immediately.

The Fab Four
The Fab Four

Jessica values the relationships she has established with her fellow Paralympic swimming friends. "It feels neat being around them cause they're like me, and they're swimming hard, and they know what it's like not to have--they just know what it's like."

When asked about her experience in Athens, Greece, for the Paralympic Games, Jessica replied very much like one would expect a 12-year-old girl to respond. "Being in Athens and winning three gold medals was so awesome, so amazing. I knew I was representing my country, but then to get on the podium...that was my flag, that was my anthem. I sort of knew I could do it, but I was very surprised. I had no idea that I was that be the first in the world. I have three gold medals," said Jessica, all the while sounding to the reporter like she was still trying to convince herself of the reality.

A Kidder and a Kid

The Sisters
The Sisters

In the pool, Jessica gets most of her power from her upper body. She does not have a powerful start because she pushes off the starting block with her knees. She also does her turnarounds by pushing off the wall with her knees. Seeing her do this would cause many amputees to grimace with pain. Jessica likes to play on this with people and often carries out a joke. During an interview with The Washington Post , Jessica pulled herself out of the pool at her swim club and walked along on her knees on the hard concrete. As she did so, she exclaimed, grinning the entire time, "Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. It really hurts!" Her coach joked back at her affectionately about getting some kneepads made for her. To this, Jessica simply grinned and answered, "Yup," while she pulled on her prosthetic legs.

Her mother offers these comments about Jessica walking on her knees: "It seems like it would be uncomfortable, but she never shows any sign of it." Beth continues, "She'll jump down from chairs onto her knees; she jumps on the trampoline and walks around the house all on her knees. We tell her not to, but she doesn't like to be told she can't do things." This is why Jessica stands where she does today with three gold medals from the Paralympic Games and holding numerous records in a variety of swimming events.

On any given day, you can see Jessica wearing her favorite T-shirt, which bears the following saying: "I'm a girl. I'm an athlete. Swimming is my sport. Prepare to be humiliated," which she wears with the deepest conviction, tongue in cheek, of course!

She Gives God the Glory

When Jessica was very young, her parents taught her about Christianity. Being raised in a Christian home and being home-schooled by her parents have offered her what she feels is a sound foundation upon which the remainder of her life will be established. When people admire the decorated walls of her family home and all the accolades and records garnered by this little bilateral amputee, who hails from Baltimore, Maryland, by way of a dreary communist orphanage in Russia, there certainly isn't any doubt to whom the Long family believes all thanks should be given.

When one closes his/her eyes to imagine the time when the Olympic Games were new, the parallels are ironic really. According to Olympic history, the Games were part of a religious festival, held every four years. The four-year interval was called an Olympiad, and was the system upon which time in ancient Greek history was calculated. This time was so important that even wars were stopped when the Games were held.

In Greek mythology, Apollo was believed to be the god of healing who taught men medicine, a healer who drove out illness and made people well. His tree was the laurel tree, from which the laurel wreath, an emblem of victory donned by Jessica, was said to have originated.

If we could pause for a moment as a tribute to Jessica, to her courage, to the hope she instills in others, to the strength of her faith, we would reflect on her accomplishments and the magnitude of the meaning her life has already carried. Time might stand still, conflicts might pause, and all of us might hold our breath as we witness her taking flight on the winged chariot of the spirit of Apollo. This small and beautiful child is our youngest Paralympic champion and "Today's Consumer."