Ahead of the game: How paralympic swimmer Jessica Long prioritised her mental health in a whole new way

The 2020 Paralympic Games started in Tokyo recently, and American swimmer Jessica Long can hardly contain her excitement. Following a “tough” outing at the Rio Paralympics in 2016 — at the time, she had been struggling with an eating disorder as well as shoulder injuries — Long is now feeling “really good” both physically and emotionally. And that’s thanks, in part, to prioritising her wellbeing in a whole new way.

“The last five years I’ve really worked on my mental health and seeing a therapist — which, it’s so funny cause I thought that in going into therapy, I was going to talk all about swimming, and if anything, I never talk about swimming,” Long tells Shape.

Although Long has been swimming competitively for years — making her Paralympic debut at the age of 12 in Athens, Greece — the 29-year-old athlete knows the sport is part of her life and not her entire life. “I think when you can separate the two, and, I still have a love for it, I still have a passion to win, and a passion to be the best I can be in the sport, but I also know at the end of the day, it is just swimming,” explains Long. “And I think that’s really, really helped me with my mental health getting ready for Tokyo.”

The second-most decorated Paralympian in US history (with a whopping 23 medals and counting), Long began her inspiring story far from her adoptive home in Baltimore Maryland. She was born in Siberia with a rare condition known as fibular hemimelia, in which the fibulae (the shin bones), foot bones, and ankles don’t develop properly. At 13 months old, she was adopted from a Russian orphanage by American parents Steve and Elizabeth Long. Five months later, she had both of her legs amputated below the knees so she could learn to walk using prosthetic legs.

From a young age, Long was active and played sports such as gymnastics, basketball, and rock climbing, according to NBC Sports. But it wasn’t until she was 10 years old that she joined a competitive swim team — and then qualified for the US Paralympic Team just two years later. “I love swimming; I love everything it’s given me,” says Long of her 19-year career, parts of which were chronicled in a heartwarming Super Bowl ad for Toyota celebrating this year’s Olympics and Paralympic Games. “When I look back on my life, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, have I swum the entire world? How many miles have I actually swam?’”

Today, Long’s training regimen consists of morning stretching and a two-hour practice. She then squeezes in some shuteye before hopping into the pool again in the evening. But before you ask, no, Long’s schedule isn’t all swim and no self-care. In fact, Long regularly treats herself to “me dates,” which include some R&R in the tub. “When I’m tired or if I’ve been overworked or had a really tough practice, that’s when I have to take a step back and think, ‘Okay, you have to take some time for yourself, you have to get in a good mindset,’ and one of my favourite ways to do that is to bring it back to the centre,” says Long. “I love taking Epsom salt baths. I love putting on a candle, reading a book, and just taking a second for me.”

Long counts Dr Teal’s Epsom Salt Soaking Solution as her go-to for helping to soothe aches and pains. “I’m rotating my arms thousands of times in practice, so for me, it’s kind of my me-time, it’s my mental health, and it’s also my recovery, and it allows me to get back up and do it all over again, to take on the day, and I feel so, so incredible,” she says.

And while Long is ready to take on Toyko –— not to mention the Paralympics Games in Paris in 2024 and in Los Angeles in 2028, likely the final games of her career — she’s also doing her best to keep her mindset positive and any doubts at bay. “For me, I think all of us athletes can relate, just to the amount of pressure,” explains Long. And while Long is fine with leaning into the pressure “a little bit,” she also knows when it’s time to step back to prevent herself from overthinking. “Anytime I think about Tokyo or each race or reach performance, I want to be thinking super positive,” she says.

As for what Long is most looking forward to after potentially collecting more hardware in Tokyo? A sweet reunion stateside with her family and husband Lucas Winters, whom she married in October 2019. “I haven’t seen my family since April, and I haven’t seen my husband since…. it will be about three-and-a-half months,” says Long, who has been training in Colorado Springs. “He’s the one that’s going to pick me up when I touch down, and we already have a countdown.”

This story first appeared on www.shape.com

(Main and Feature Image Credit: Getty Images)

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