U.S. swimmer Jessica Long hugged Australian Lakeisha Patterson when the women’s 400 freestyle final was over and offered congratulations. Long had a medal in her fourth Paralympics, but Patterson took the gold and the world record.
“I wish it went a little differently,” said Long, the highly decorated U.S. Paralympian who is competing in nine races at the Rio Games.
“I think the only hard part about that is adding time in one of my best races. But at the same time, I’ve overcome some really bad shoulder injuries. So I’m really proud that I finished, and even signed up for the race.”
Patterson’s time of 4 minutes, 40.33 seconds nipped Long’s previous record of 4:40.44.
“Jess is an amazing person and a really great, fierce competitor,” Patterson said. “She’s achieved so much. To be able to have my idol come up to me and say she’s proud of me — it was really quite bittersweet. And that’s going to stick with me for a long time.”
The 24-year-old Long now has 18 medals overall, a dozen of them gold.
But Patterson, a 17-year-old swimmer from Caboolture, Australia, who has cerebral palsy, steadily took control of the race after the first 100 meters. Long finished far back, in 4:47.82.
Long was born in Siberia with fibular hemimelia, a birth defect that left her without her fibulas, ankles, heels and most of the other bones in her feet.
Shortly after being adopted at 13 months old, Long went through multiple surgeries, eventually having each of her legs amputated below the knee. Growing up in Baltimore, she took up swimming at age 10 and joined her first team.
Two years later, she became the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic team and went on to win three gold medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
Long is just the third American swimmer to appear in four Paralympics. She may be rivaled only by U.S. wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, competing in seven events from the 100 meters to the marathon in Rio, as the best-known and busiest American Paralympian.
“Oh my goodness,” Long exclaimed when asked after her qualifying heat about how she’s handling her nine-event schedule. “Day by day. Literally, I can’t even think about tomorrow. Just thinking about today, and basically what I can control which is today and just enjoying it. It’s a lot of fun to be back.”
It might have been a little less fun on the medal stand, but when Patterson embraced her again, Long just smiled, accepted the hug and lifted Patterson off her feet.