Jessica Long will participate in her fourth Paralympics this week. A 17-time medalist (12 gold), she is a 24-year-old veteran of her craft.
Long was born in Siberia, Russia, in 1992, without any bones in her ankles or feet due to fibular hemimelia. She was adopted by American parents Beth and Steve Long at 13 months old. At 18 months old, she had both lower legs amputated.
Long was introduced to several sports as a young child, but the pool stuck out.
"I fell in love with swimming because I didn't have to wear prosthetic legs and I just loved the feeling of the water," she says.
At age 12, most kids spend the summer readying for middle school, but Jessica Long had a different experience in 2004. She was in Athens, Greece, competing as a swimmer.
Long could have just enjoyed the ride as a preteen getting a Eurotrip in 2004, but she went to Athens with the intention of bringing home gold. And she did. Long won three gold medals and instantly became a superstar in the world of Paralympic swimming.
"None of the medals were handed to me," she says.
One of the greatest honors bestowed on Long is the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States, annually. Long won the award at age 14, becoming the youngest-ever recipient. She joined a list of names that includes Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis, Missy Franklin, Mark Spitz, Michelle Kwan, Shawn Johnson, Peyton Manning, Bill Walton and Tim Tebow.
Long flew to New York for the ceremony in 2006 with her family. When her name was called, she began clapping to congratulate someone else, as she completely ruled out the possibility of winning in her mind. She has since developed a relationship with fellow winner Franklin, whom Long says she "adores."
When discussing her accomplishments, Long indicates that winning is the ultimate goal, but it must also be kept in perspective.
"Growing up in the sport of swimming, I now realize the gold medals are so awesome, but they do not define me anymore," she says. "That used to be where I felt my self-worth came from."
She now defines her self-worth as an amalgam of athletic accomplishments and her ability to serve as a role model for all children, especially those dealing with disabilities.
"Swimming is something I love to do, and I try not to forget that when the practices get really hard and it almost feels like a job," she says. "I love swimming, but I also love having this opportunity to help inspire a little girl who just lost her legs to cancer and wants to get involved with sports. That's what the Paralympics is all about -- being a role model and an ambassador, there’s nothing better."
The training regiment for a Paralympic swimmer is grueling and relentless. With only the use of her arms to propel herself forward, Long places tremendous stress on her upper body. She rotates her arms 9,000 times in one swim practice, usually practicing twice a day.
"Back in January , there was a moment when I really wanted to quit," she says. "I was dealing with such bad shoulder pain that I didn't think I was going to make it [to Rio]."
Rio is another barrier in Long's adventurous career.
"I've definitely overcome a lot," Long said. "No one thought I would be here with my life, but I like the challenges."
The best advice Long said she ever received about coping with stress and failure -- although she’s had little experience with the latter -- came from her mother who often tells her, "Smile a lot and have a good attitude on the pool deck regardless of the outcome."
Long, who earned four gold medals in Beijing in 2008 and five in London in 2012, headlines the U.S. Paralympic swim team in Rio. The Opening Ceremony is Wednesday at Maracanã Stadium and swimming begins on Thursday.
Long spoke to ThePostGame on behalf of airweave, a company dedicated to giving people "the quality sleep." Long is taking her airweave mattress to Rio for the Paralympics.
Follow Jack Minton on Twitter @jackminton95.