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Swimmer Jessica Long shares her inspiring journey from adoption to Paralympic gold

Jessica Long, a 23-time Paralympic medalist, underwent more than two dozen surgeries as a child, including a double-leg amputation. Her story was told in a gripping ad that aired during the Tokyo Olympics and is the subject of a new book.
/ Source: TODAY

The Paralympic Games are just around the corner, but swimmer Jessica Long is already sharing her captivating story.

During the Tokyo Olympics, an advertisement told Long's story: She was born in Siberia and placed in an orphanage after she was diagnosed with fibular hemimelia, a condition that meant most of the bones in her feet were missing.

The ad shows a fictionalized depiction of Long's adoptive mother, Beth, getting the call that a child was available but would have her legs amputated, then shows Long's journey to becoming a 23-time Paralympic medalist.

Beth Long said that nothing mattered to her beyond getting to adopt Jessica.

"We had seen a picture of Jessica ahead of time, and so when they called, we just knew she was the one for us," she told TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager. "Like, it didn't matter what the disability was, what the problems were. We were just ready, and we just knew she was meant for us."

After being adopted, Jessica underwent 25 surgeries, including a double-leg amputation at just 18 months old.

"We had planned for surgeries, but going through it, of course, is harder than you think," Beth Long said. "The very first surgery with the amputation ... We felt very prepared.

"It was still difficult, and the little feet she had, like it was really hard for her to lose those," she said. "Like, you don't realize, once she comes, you love every part of her, so it's actually losing a piece of her, and so that was more difficult than I thought it would be."

While Jessica remembers the period as being "so incredibly hard" with "so much pain" and a lot of fear, she soon found her way to the water.

"The water has always been a place of freedom, safety, but also feeling really strong and capable," said the 13-time gold medalist.

Jessica first discovered her love of water in her grandparents' swimming pool. She said that she "instantly loved" the sensation of swimming.

"I just had such determination to just prove to everyone that I could do it," she said. "And I think that stems even stems from my adoption, just wanting to prove that I was worthy, that I was enough."

She quickly grew from her grandparents' pool and joined a local swim team at the age of 10. Just two years later, she earned a spot at the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, where she won three gold medals.

Paralympic Swimming
Jessica Long of the USA wins the gold medal in the Womens 400m S8 Freestyle Final, on September 24, during the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games at the Swimming Pool in the Olympic Sports Complex Aquatic Centre in Athens, Greece.Ker Robertson / Getty Images

"I remember showing up behind those blocks, just thinking to myself 'I did not come here to get second,' and I really, really wanted a gold medal," she recalled. "I remember just absolutely wanting to jump in and race and swim as hard as I could."

Now, almost two decades later, Long is headed to her fifth Games.

"I really live for the racing, the moments in those races where everything slows down even though you're swimming as fast as possible," she said. "That's what I trained for."

In Tokyo, though, the medals aren't all she's focused on.

"I'd love the gold and that's what I'm obviously going for, but if I never bring home another gold in my life, I am more than enough," she said. "And maybe I can say that because I have won some gold, but also, you know, if you're not enough without a gold medal, you'll never be enough without one."

Long has also shared her story in the book "Pure Grit," which details her journey from Siberia to the Olympic podium, and shows how she kept going.

"It wasn't an option to quit, because if I had quit, if I had given up in those moments, I really don't know where I would've been," Long said. "Swimming was truly a way that I just felt that freedom from all of those surgeries and the pain."