“I always loved to swim, even before gymnastics. I used to swim in my grandparents’ pool. I thought I was a mermaid. [Laughs] I loved swimming in that pool. But for 6 years, I did do gymnastics. I was doing somersaults and flips around the house and my parents thought that that was I should get involved with gymnastics. And I really did love the sport, especially the uneven bars. But along the line, [my parents] gave me an ultimatum. They said, “You can do gymnastics if you wear your prosthetics.” But I didn’t want to because they kept sliding off my foot during exercises. Could you imagine me on the balance beam with those on? The other option was that I could do another sport. I decided to swim and it took off from there.
For me, I think the moment I realized I wanted to pursue swimming at a professional level was when I made the Athens team at the age of 12 for my first paralympics games. I remember I wrote a letter to my friend and told her, at 12 years old, that I wanted to win a gold medal. I wasn’t even ranked to make finals – I was 10th or 11th. I saw how serious other athletes were in Athens, and that’s when I knew that this was something I could do for my career.
The way athletes with disabilities train is very similar to the way able bodied athletes do. My paralympic coach, Dave Denniston, makes sure that we [paralympic athletes] are treated the same as those without disabilities. There are some things I do have trouble with – starts and turns specifically. We work hard on strengthening on my legs. I work on my knee strengthening when my [prosthetic] legs are off. Training – we do a lot. For a long time, for 8 years, I never kicked. But once I was in Colorado Springs, but my coach showed me fins. It really helped.
Right now my training has cut back in half since London [2012 Paralympic Games]. I still swim 7-9am in the morning. Then an hour of cardio after swimming, followed by weights for an hour. The strength training is really good for me. And then I will go and take a nap. [Laughs] Unless I want to do abs on my own. By 12pm I’ve already worked out for 4 hours. It’s the off-year for me right now. It’s the time that I can swim enough to stay in shape and swim for leisure.
Being in a sport as swimming, everyday you’re in a tiny bathing suit. You’re with girls who are very skinny and athletetic. It’s crazy because I never felt self-conscious when I was little. One thing I have to remind myself is that everyone is beautiful in their own way. I can’t go crazy with my diet or my body because I work out every day and I do eat right and I do eat healthy.
If I wasn’t swimming, I would probably be doing something in dermatology. I’ve realized that I wanted to have my own practice, that is if I wasn’t swimming. I’d always choose to swim first! Regarding school, I was homeschooled my whole life and graduated in 2010. Then I moved to the training center here in Colorado Springs. My goal was to train towards London. I didn’t want to think about classes and I wanted to give London my full attention. Hopefully, not this coming semester but the next [January-May 2014], I will be home in Baltimore. I really want to get a communications degree, perhaps working with ESPN Web.
I was adopted from Syria but I have not yet gone back yet. I am planning to go back in the next year. I really want to visit the orphanage I was at when I was younger. I would love to officially meet my family. I learned all about them when I was in London and I’m really excited. If you asked me four years ago, I don’t think I was mentally ready. But now, I am very eager. I talked to my younger biological sister – we connected via Facebook – and that’s really cool and special. We’re going to film my family reunion for a documentary. There are a lot of really exciting things. One thing that saddens me, though, is that today, there’s a law in Russia that doesn’t allow you to adopt children, the Magnitsky Act. But I would love to adopt a child from Russia.
I think beauty is so much more than outward appearance. In today’s society that’s all we look at. I think that’s really sad. Some of the most beautiful girls out there are the ones who have inward beauty and a kind heart. I think happy girls are the prettiest girls. I really believe that and I think that’s a quote somewhere. But the happiness just radiates off them. I’m not looking at others for their appearance but for their inner beauty. I notice that a lot. I feel really blessed to have some really great and kind friends. Even my little sister, Hannah – she’s one of the most beautiful people I know. She approaches life incredibly and I really admire her.
At the end of the day, what makes me happy is swimming. If you think back to why I started, it wasn’t for all of these medals. That came a long the way. When I first started I was the little girl who loved the feeling of the water and challenging myself. Getting older, I stayed happy because of swimming. I love improving my times and proving to the world that I am a strong competitor. It’s what I love to do.”
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