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Paralympic swimmers of varying ages unite at Jimi Flowers Classic in Colorado Springs

June 21, 2014 Updated: June 22, 2014 at 8:54 am
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Haven Shepherd (left) spends time in the pool with Jessica Long (right) after the morning session of Saturday's opening session of the Jimi Flowers Classic. Photo by Quentin Sickafoose.

Of all the hats Jessica Long has been known to wear, her job title as a friend tops the priority list.

The 22-year-old owns 12 Paralympic swimming world records. She's won 17 total medals (12 gold) since she first began international competition at the 2004 Athens Games. Long even spends time sharing the limelight with Michael Phelps, both of whom are Baltimore hometown heroes.

But none of that seemed to matter Saturday afternoon for the opening day of the fifth annual Jimi Flowers Classic at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center.

Long was the last person to leave the pool after Saturday's morning session, and she was accompanied by 11-year-old Haven Shepherd. The two stuck around after their events, practicing their stroke techniques and dives off the starting block.

The duo shares a similar story. Both were born internationally and adopted into families with multiple siblings. Both had the lower part of their legs amputated at a young age due to fibular hemimelia. Both find a sense of being through swimming they don't get anywhere else.

"I knew that she was in the Olympics, but I didn't really see her as that," Shepherd said. "She knows what I feel and what some people don't know. Since I've started swimming with her, I feel free, like nothing is holding me back."

Shepherd clocked personal-best times in the 50-meter freestyle and 100 backstroke with 42.13 seconds and 1 minute, 56.35 seconds, respectively. She won her heat in the 50 freestyle by nearly a full second and improved her time in the 100 backstroke more than 20 seconds.

Long finished second in the 200 butterfly behind Rebecca Meyers with a 2:36.50. She bounced back by winning the 400 freestyle overall and within her class by 34 seconds in 4:50.51.

But to them, being there was more important than the numbers on the result sheets.

"This meet is really about encouraging the little swimmers and really bringing awareness about Paralympics," Long said. "I thought I swam well and I'm happy with it. But at the end of the day, it's better when a little girl comes up to me and wants to take a picture or you see someone go and get a best time."

The annual swimming meet, which began in 2010, is an event held in remembrance of James "Jimi" Flowers, who passed away in the summer of 2009 in a climbing accident. Flowers was a U.S. Paralympics swim coach and played an influential role in its community. All proceeds raised go to his children via the Sam and Lauren Flowers Fund.

"This meet has always been big for our community. It's great to have the athletes who have been around and made the national team cuts swimming around these younger, up-and-coming ones," said Jamie Martin, associate director of the Paralympic swimming national team. "They have role models to meet and get to spend time with."

After spending the past month in her former home of Colorado Springs, Long is heading back to Baltimore this week to begin training for the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, at the end of August.

Shepherd, however, has more important things in mind for her agenda.

"Next up for me is lunch," she said. "I just have to wait for Jessica to change first."

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