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'In the winter he skated and Nadya thought him rather too showy with his style of strutting like a chicken'

The Siberian parents who gave up Jessica Long as a new-born baby salute her heroic achievement

By 0 and 0 and 0
15 September 2012


One of world's best swimmers, Jessica Long, was born deep in Siberia and named Tatiana by her Russian parents

Record-beating US Paralympic star Jessica Long is one of the world's greatest swimmers - and in the 2012 London Games she took five gold and two silver medals.  Her victories and battle over adversity have made her a household name in America. 

But her first home was an orphanage in Bratsk, Siberia after her teenage Russian parents gave her up at the maternity hospital because of her severe disabilities. 

They named her Tatiana, but then had nothing more to do with her. She became an orphan, and one year later was adopted by American couple Beth and  Steve Long, who gave her the home and love she needed to grow up a happy child and later develop her skills and shine on the world stage. 

Jessica Long

Jessica Long

Jessica Long

Jessica Long: first swimming lessons in America, first steps on her limbs before the surgery, first attempts to put her limbs on after the operation. Pictures: Channel One TV, Russia

Jessica herself has spoken of her early life, though it is not clear even she knew the full circumstances of the decision by her blood parents to give her up.

Until now, when her real mother and father have spoken for the first time, and talked about the traumatic moment they 'rejected her', and the reasons they did so. They also expressed their enormous pride in her achievements, which include a dozen Paralympic gold medals in Athens, Beijing and London.  

As Jessica has said in telling what she knew of her background: 'I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, but I am originally from Siberia.

'I was born with fibular hemimelia, so I didn't have fibulas, ankles, heels, and most of the other bones in my feet. I was adopted from Russian orphanage when I was 13 months old along with a little boy from the same orphanage. When I was 18 months old, the rest of my lower parts of my legs were amputated so that I could be fitted for prosthetic legs and learn how to walk.

'I am one of six children and my parents made sure we all remained active. I have been involved in many sports including gymnastics, basketball, cheerleading, ice skating, biking, running, and rock climbing.

'However, I always loved swimming the most. I learned how to swim in my grandparents' pool where my sisters and I would spend hours pretending we were mermaids.'

After Jessica herself told a Russian journalist how she would love to find her real parents, they have now been traced - as has a full blood  sister of Jessica's, slightly younger than her and named Anastasia, who has spoken emotionally at her joy at finding her missing sibling.

Jessica Long Jessica Long

Jessica Long, left and her younger sister Anastasia. Pictures: Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Russia

Also found is her mother's sister Tatiana, who Jessica was originally named after. 

Unusually, in such situations, the then unmarried couple who gave her up not only remained together after the trauma of giving up their first child, but went on to wed and create a strong family. They have three more children, one of whom - Dasha, 13 - is also disabled and who they care for themselves at their home in a village in Irkutsk region  some 3,850 km ( 2,350 miles) east of Moscow. 

Deeply emotional, Natalia, now 38, Jessica's real mother, stumbled as she tried to find the words to explain on Russian television how she felt two decades ago, at the age of 18, after giving birth to a seriously disabled daughter. 

'I feel so sorry,' she said.  'At that time - there was some fear, I got scared.  I had to leave her behind. But I did think that I would take her back,' she said. 

'Of course I was against leaving her in the hospital but because of the circumstances we had to do so. 

'In my heart I did want to take her home, and thought I would take her back later.

'I was alone in Siberia, without my mother and father. Where would I go with her, if I had taken her? Doctors told me to leave her behind - said that I could not help her.....I called her Tatiana, after my elder sister.'

Talking about her now, she still sometimes refers to her as Tanya (the fond name for Tatiana), rather than Jessica. At the time she gave birth, she was 18 and her then boyfriend Oleg was even younger. He, too, now recalls the pressure they came under to give up their first child.

Jessica Long's mother

Jessica Long's father

Jessica Long as a baby

Jessica Long's mother Natalia, father Oleg, as Jessica as a baby, pictured soon after birth. Pictures: Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Russia

Oleg Valtyshev, then 17, says he was told to make a decision for both of them about the fate of the baby, soon after being allowed into the maternity hospital to see her condition (this at a time when fathers were normally not permitted inside the doors of such hospitals).

He faced doctors telling him that he and his girlfriend had no hope of caring for her properly in the village where they lived. 

'What could I have said?  I couldn't say anything because I was not ready for this. I was very shocked with the whole thing,' he says now.

'I don't want to say anything bad about  the doctors. They said: 'The girl has deformities and you are young, it's going to be hard'. '

He recalls that 'of course' he and Natalia wanted to take little Tatiana (now Jessica) home, but seemed to find recalling this moment too painful to find words to explain it fully. He did, though, express his deep pride over Jessica's life and achievements in America, and very much wishes to meet a daughter he only even saw for a few minutes in the maternity hospital. 

'Of course I'm happy that we found her, glad for her and I am proud. And of course I want to meet her,' he said. 

Natalia told that she hoped in giving up her baby to the orphanage that she could one day come back for her.

She had not expected that Tatiana - as she then was - would be adopted. Again unusually, even as she quick became pregnant again with Anastasia (Nastya), she kept in touch with her first child's progress in the orphanage. 

'I got to know that Americans had adopted her,' she said. 

'On 6 July 1993 I gave birth to my second daughter Nastya, and on the 9 July American parents adopted her.'

(By Jessica's account the adoption happened earlier, in February, so perhaps there was a delay in Natalia being informed; or the bureaucracy involved in the adoption meant it was only in July that the Longs were able to take her to America).

'Babies are normally kept in the baby orphanage until the age of three, and I was sure nobody would adopt her. I was getting information about my daughter, that she was growing up pretty, that everybody loves her. 

'And then I got information that she was being adopted to America.'

Jessica Long's American father

Jessica Long American parents

Jessica Long's American father Steve with Jessica as a baby, and now, together with his wife Beth. Pictures: Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Russia

The American couple who came for her were unaware, it seems, of Natalia and Oleg's story. Jessica had heard a version that her mother was only 16 when she gave her up. 

'It took us a lot of time to sort out all the paperwork for adoption. We had no idea she had some parents. We thought she was an orphan. And she had serious problems with legs. She does not have bones in her legs down from her knees, right after knees there are feet with fingers. We turned to many professionals in order to solve this problem. We really wanted to help her as much as possible,' her US father Steve was quoted as saying.

Today, the physical similarity of Jessica - who also now works as a model - to her biological parents and to her three Siberian siblings is striking. Still stunned by the news about who her daughter is, Natalia admitted softly: 'I think we are alike.'

Natalia knows, too, despite the pain she has undoubtedly suffered, that by going to the US with the Longs, her daughter was able to achieve things that might not have been possible in Russia.

Asked about whether she could have done for Jessica what her US parents did, she said immediately: 'No, of course I could not have done it.'

Jessica, too, while she has not commented directly on the discovery of her real parents by Russian journalists, is effusive in her gratitude to her American family for their love and dedication to her in allowing her to fulfil her dreams. 

'My father does a lot for me, he supports me and he always did, especially when I just began to go info sports and it was hard for me. I became what I am now thanks to my parents. I can run, ride my bicycle, live normal life as everybody does.'

Jessica Long as a baby

First steps: Jessica is learning to walk. Picture: Channel One TV,  Russia

Both Jessica's biological sister and aunt - Anastasia and Tatiana - in different ways confirm the difficult circumstances Natalia faced.

'I am very glad that I found out about her. And I am very proud that I have such a sister, who has achieved so much. And of course, I would love to meet her, if she wants to', said Anastasia. She only discovered when she was eight years old that she had an elder sister, she revealed.  And she did so in a way that left a deep impression of how painful the subject was for her mother. 

'I was very surprised. Mama said that she was very beautiful. She said that it was hard for her to talk about it, and I should not ask questions. But sometimes I thought of her. I thought that when I grow older and get a job, maybe I'll find her.'

She later avoided the subject because it was so hard for her mother. 

Aunt Tatiana Rusanova said this was not a case of a mother cruelly giving up a baby because she was disabled. 

Jessica Long

Jessica Long's mother Natalia, right, and aunt Tatiana, left, after whom she was named at birth.  Picture: Channel One TV, Russia

'I want to support my sister. Our lives were difficult. Our fate took us in different directions. Natalia was 15 when she had to go to Irkutsk region. I stayed in Kursk region. We lived a poor life. We had a stepfather. Our mother liked to drink vodka. Natalia was like an orphan. There was nobody around to help her. She wrote to us, telling us she had given birth to a disabled baby girl. We worried about her. We did not hope for anything good.'

Aunt Tatiana explained how Natalia phoned her recently to tell her the news about Jessica,  adding she was on her way to a TV interview about her daughter. 

'My sister Natalia called me. She said: 'I am flying to Moscow, Jessica Long is my daughter. She has been searching for me for three years.....'

'I nearly lost my consciousness, I was so shocked. At that moment I had been watching Paralympic Games. The swimming had been on and I saw Jessica there. 

'Then I looked online. Jessica is so much like her sister Nastya. She is just Nastya's lookalike.'

No meeting has happened yet between Jessica and her lost family but it seems this is something she wants.

Jessica Long

Jessica Long

Jessica Long's Russian sisters and brothers and, below, younger sister Dasha, who's got similar disability to Jessica's. Pictures: Channel One TV, Rossiya 1 TV, Russia

And intriguingly as she prepared for a White House reception for Olympians and Paralypians hosted by President Barack Obama, she Tweeted: 'Thank you for all the love and support from Russia!'

She is on record as saying: 'I would like to go to Russia just after the Paralympics to find my Mom. I don't know anything about her besides the fact that her name is Natalia and she was 16 when she left me in the Irkutsk orphanage. 

'I'm not angry with her. I just want to meet her. I think we have a lot in common. I know that one day I will have a family and I will have kids, and you know what, I would like to call my daughter Natalia, the name of my Russian mother who gave birth to me.'

She also told one journalist that she believes Natalia, given the circumstances she was in, 'did the right thing'.

Remarkable childhood pictures show Jessica's personal battle to live a normal life and achieve extraordinary things. 

'When I am watching my childhood videos, I understand that even being a child I wanted to achieve a lot, I never gave up. I was learning to walk, I always knew I would walk and I won't differ to other kids. I don't like it that much to look at my legs but still I learnt to walk on limbs, and I am so grateful to my parents.'

Her large American family - which includes a boy called Joshua adopted from the same Siberian orphanage at the same time as Jessica - means the world to her. 

'Jessica has got four brothers and sisters. They always go to support her when she competes. She has three grandparents, and of course we, her parents, who always support her in all she does,' said Steve. 

And she told a TV interviewer: 'I have several pairs of legs - for all situations in this life. I have legs for running, legs for a party, legs for simple walking. Here I am at my doctors. When I need a new pair of legs, I always go to meet him. Now I order the legs for running. I love this feeling when you can move around yourself, when you can climb hills.'

Her spirit shines through in everything she says. 'If you do not have legs, it does not mean you are a defective person. You can do all you want....'

Jessica Long

Jessica Long now. Picture: Splash magazine 

She is today an inspiration to millions not only in America but also in her native Russia and around the world. 

It is perhaps true, too, that Russia's successes in the Paralympics, this time coming in second place behind China  is testimony to more positive attitudes to disabled people and their potential.

The last word for now should go to Jessica: 'Who would have ever imagined that a girl with a 'disability' from an orphanage in Siberia would be where I am today?  I'm living proof that you can accomplish your dreams, no matter how great or small.

'I would like to thank God, my family, friends, and coaches for always encouraging me! I couldn't be successful without them!'

Comments (50)

That makes me think: all disabled people should be against abortion. Look what they are, what they accomplish, it is wonderful- In Brazil the totalitarian pseudosocialist government is trying to push in abortion - they want to kill whoever is not totally healthy as they say and are also trying to legalize eutanasia. All disabled and paraathletes should join and try to stop this.
Cris, Brazil
21/09/2012 01:47
I applause Jessica's adoptive parents, it speaks volumes about how they raised her, with great respect to her biological mother.
Yuliya, Colorado
20/09/2012 13:17
I totally adore Jessica Long and her American parents, and wish them all the very best in every aspect of their life. What they've done together is incredible.
Fabio, F
18/09/2012 16:08
Jessica is one of the most inspiring people I have ever, ever read about. And the way she speaks about her biological mother shows what an incredibly kind heart she's got. I wish them all well
expat in Russia, Tyumen
18/09/2012 14:57
Amazing story....
Cynthia, Belgium
15/09/2012 15:43

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