COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- As a 12-year-old, Jessica Long swam to three gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics. She won six medals, including four golds, with three world records at the 2008 Paralympics.
Her target for the 2012 Paralympics in London? Seven golds -- in nine events.
"I want to challenge myself," Long said. "I want to reach for the impossible."
Once-unrealistic expectations are now attainable for many of the nation's top Paralympic swimmers, the result of the recently expanded resident program at the Olympic Training Center that positions the United States to build upon an impressive string of success.
Ten new swimmers -- Tucker Dupree, Jonathan Heider, Anna Johannes, Daniel Kamber, Lauren Kintzing, Richard McCullough, Michael Prout Jr., Elizabeth Stone, Mallory Weggemann and Long -- were added to a group featuring Cody Bureau, Amanda Everlove, Rudy Garcia-Tolson, Lantz Lamback, Ileana Rodriguez and Susan Beth Scott.
They began practicing last month under former Colorado high school swimming standout Dave Denniston, a 2008 Paralympian taking control of a program built by Jimi Flowers, who died in a 2009 mountain-climbing accident. Flowers coached Denniston at Auburn, where Denniston won a national title before being paralyzed in a 2005 sledding accident.
Like able-bodied OTC athletes, the Paralympic swimmers have access to all the resources on the Colorado Springs complex -- a nutritionist, psychologist, physiologist, optometrist, chiropractor and massage therapist. They also can utilize the athlete recovery center, ideal for post-workout cool-downs, and the dining hall, which is anything but your ordinary cafeteria.
An intense drive is needed, even 23 months from London, where Americans figure to get tested in the water by China, Ukraine and Great Britain. U.S. Paralympic swimmers took home the most golds (17) in 2008 in Beijing, while their 44 medals were second to China, four years after they tied for fifth with 35 medals (16 golds) in Athens, Greece.
"The rest of the world is becoming just as competitive," U.S. Paralympics chief Charlie Huebner said, noting that OTC swimmers tallied 18 medals in 2008, most notably four by Lamback, three by Everlove and two by Garcia-Tolson, in addition to the six by Long.
"Every athlete is different and unique," Huebner added. "Being around talented athletes that are pursuing perfection rubs off on others. . . . I think we found something that works. It definitely creates a focus for athletes that have the potential to be on the podium."
A winner of 16 medals (14 golds) at the past two world championships, Long, 18, already has seen a "huge improvement" in her freestyle, and she reports strides in her backstroke and her breaststroke, which she calls "one of my weakest strokes." Not bad for someone who spent the previous eight years lacking competition on a Baltimore-based club team.
"I love being pushed," said Long, whose legs were amputated below the knee before she turned 2 because of anomalies. "I was pushing myself. But I needed the athletes. I needed other athletes to push me. ... My motivation for swimming is just lifted."
About her odds for seven golds, one fewer than Michael Phelps won in Beijing, Long said, "That's a huge goal. . . . I've been actually feeling like it's becoming more realistic."