On this episode of All Inclusive, Jay has special guest, twenty-three time Paralympic Medalist, Jessica Long! Join Jay and Jessica as they discuss how quarantine is impacting her training, the cheating scandal in the Paralympics, her training with Olympians, and why she dedicated her life to swimming.
Jay Ruderman (00:00):
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many changes to everyone’s lives. In many locations, you cannot go out to eat, see a movie or gather with friends. Most sporting events have been canceled or postponed, including the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Jay Ruderman (00:20):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, host of All Inclusive. Today, we have the second most decorated Paralympian in US history and someone who’s directly affected by the postponement, Jessica Long.
Speaker 2 (00:40):
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:51):
Jessica, thank you for joining us on All Inclusive. You have had a very impressive life and a very successful athletic career. So maybe you can just start by telling us a little bit about your beginnings and your history and how you got into athletics.
Jessica Long (01:12):
First, thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be a part of this and to share my story, which happens to be all the way back in Russia. I was born to a 16-year-old Russian girl and due to a birth defect, she just wasn’t able to take care of me. So she made a really difficult decision and decided to put me up for adoption in hopes that I would be adopted by a good family. And during this time there was an American couple here in Baltimore who had two children, but were told that they couldn’t have any more. So they looked into adoption and when they saw a picture of me and another little boy in the same orphanage, they just knew we were the children they were meant to adopt.
Jessica Long (01:48):
So my dad went to Russia in 1993, got me and the little boy and named us Jessica and Joshua. And then it’s pretty crazy and amazing how everything works out because after we were adopted, they had two more little girls. So I’m one of six kids, really big family. I love it. I love being a part of such a incredible family dynamic. I was really truly in such an incredible family unit. They didn’t let my disability define me. I had incredible parents, Steve and Beth Long who taught me, if I fell down and I lost a prosthetic leg, to get back up.
Jessica Long (02:23):
And I certainly had a lot of moments in my life that I really questioned why, why me, why did I have to go back in for another surgery? And what they ended up finding out after I was adopted is that I was born with this birth defect called fibular hemimelia, which basically means I was missing all the bones in my lower legs. And they amputated a foot that I had on both of my legs and my three toes, so I could wear the prosthetic legs. And that took about a six month decision on whether or not to amputate this little foot, which I’m really glad they did because I’m able to wear all sorts of different prosthetic legs.
Jessica Long (02:59):
But I was a really active child. I wanted to be just like everyone else. My parents one time told me, you know, there was a group of kids at my brother’s baseball game and they were going up and down this hill and just playing. And I saw the kids and I just wanted to be like them. So I decided right then and there that I was going to try to walk up and down that hill. But for me in two prosthetics, that was really difficult because anything that’s not level, I would fall down, I would lose a leg, but I just always had this determination. And it really worked out when I joined a swim team and I started getting involved with that sport.
Jay Ruderman (03:31):
You’ve obviously excelled at swimming. You are the second most decorated Paralympian of all time. Maybe talk a little bit about swimming and how you were drawn to swimming and how you became such an accomplished swimmer.
Jessica Long (03:44):
For me, I was always a really active child. I think that goes back to all the surgeries I’ve had. Every time I grew, I had to get a surgery. And I think I really learned to appreciate just being active, right? Just being like a normal kid. So when I was really little, I would climb on top of the refrigerator, I would jump around, I would do somersaults and flips. And my parents decided to get me involved in gymnastics. And over time, my parents were really afraid I would damage my knees in gymnastics with all the jumping. So they sat me down and they gave me an ultimatum and they said, “You can continue, but you have to wear your prosthetics.”
Jessica Long (04:18):
And I didn’t really like my prosthetics at the time. They weren’t as high-tech as they are today. So we decided to just try a new sport and I had always loved to swim. It just seemed like the perfect fit in swimming. In Paralympic swimming, you are not allowed to wear any form of prosthetic. And I think I love that about the sport is that I’m able to take these two heavy prosthetic legs that I walk in every single day and I just leave them on the edge of the pool. And I jump in and I feel completely and totally just capable and strong and confident. And I think that’s why I’m still swimming to this day.
Jay Ruderman (04:53):
And so what do you attribute your success to? I mean, is it just really hard work and determination and just staying with it for years? Do you have a natural athletic ability that has made you a great swimmer?
Jessica Long (05:06):
Yeah, I think it’s a combination. I think it comes within to set goals and to want to reach them. I think for sure, being adopted from Russia and somewhat that desire to prove myself that I was worthy, that I was worth it probably comes into play. I also think wanting to be just like the other kids and having a very visible difference on the swim teams that I’ve been a part of. I have been on swim teams that I was the only girl missing legs and they didn’t treat me like that. They treated me like a friend and a competitor first and I loved when I could beat these boys or girls with legs. And I just always worked on the details and the technique. And I think that really helped give me that edge.
Jay Ruderman (05:47):
And what about other sports? Because you do many other sports and are there sports that you like to do other than swimming and there are things that you’ve excelled at other than swimming?
Jessica Long (05:56):
I really love swimming. It takes a lot of my time, especially at this level. I like being creative. I definitely think when I’m not swimming, I like interior design. I like going into a coffee shop and writing and really inspiring the next generation for sure. And swimming has given me that platform. I don’t know what sport I want to try next, but I would love to try triathlon, but for now I’m just focusing on my swimming career.
Jay Ruderman (06:23):
So let’s talk a little bit about the Paralympics because the foundation was involved in creating an organization called Link20, which are self-advocates, people with and without disabilities. And one of the success stories they had is they approached the US Olympic Committee and said, “Listen, there is disparity between the pay that Paralympians are receiving for receiving medals as opposed to Olympians.” And they were successful. Ultimately the US Olympic Committee agreed that Paralympians and Olympians should be paid the same amount for their Olympic medals. But the viewership for Paralympics is much less than the Olympics. Just give me your thoughts about being a Paralympian and competing and the tension between maybe the Olympics and the Paralympics and your thoughts on that.
Jessica Long (07:23):
Yeah. I think bottom line, we compete for Team USA. There should be no gap. And I was super excited to see that Operation Gold happened when it did. And of course, as an athlete, I can learn to appreciate where we’re at. And I know the Ruderman family, you guys had a huge role in helping push that Operation Gold. But we need that, people who care and want this Paralympic Movement to grow and to become even bigger. And I think here in the United States, we’re still catching up. And I’m excited to see progress and I hope to continue to help that.
Jessica Long (07:58):
I remember being a little girl standing kind of in the corner and we were at a media summit, which happens before every Olympic and Paralympic Games. And they invited maybe three Paralympic athletes and then the rest, I mean, it was over a couple hundred Olympic athletes and I was one of the Paralympic athletes. And I just remember looking over in the corner and it was a whole bunch of swimmers. And I remember thinking, “One day, they’re going to know who we are.” We’re not going to ever have to explain what a Paralympic athlete is.
Jessica Long (08:25):
And I’m super excited. I see it growing. I get excited for the next little boy or girl who happened to be born without an arm or a leg, or was born with CP or had an accident that they know that they can be an elite athlete. And I really think that as I’ve gotten older, that’s become my motivation. I used to swim to win gold medals. Now I swim to prove to the next little boy or girl that they can do it too.
Jay Ruderman (08:47):
You’ve won 23 Paralympic medals, 13 gold, six silver and four bronze. You’ve competed in four Paralympics competitions in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. And I was really interested to find out that you were the youngest athlete on a US Paralympic swim team in Athens, age 12. I didn’t know someone could be a Paralympian at age 12, but that’s quite impressive. You’ve also received the ESPN Best Female Athlete with a Disability, the SB Award in 2007, 2012, and 2013. And you were named Sports Illustrated among the best female athletes in 2006 and 2011, named Disabled Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World Magazine. Those accomplishments, in addition to be a member of the Forbes’ 30 Under 30, with all of those accomplishments as an athlete, how have you taken that and used that celebrity to advocate for sport and for people with disabilities in sports?
Jessica Long (09:54):
It’s been really incredible to share my story. I think number one is sharing and just giving someone hope or an inspiration that they can do it. I know growing up, I had my own role models within the Paralympic Movement. But I think one of the best things about sport is it teaches confidence. And I think growing up without legs where you know you’re different and you see it, you can’t hide this insecurity, it’s very helpful to be a part of something that builds that confidence. And ways that I try to give back and help is just here within my own community in Baltimore, whether that’s speaking at different schools or coaching a swim team. I coached a swim team for three years. It was out of my comfort zone, but it was one of the biggest learning experiences in my swimming career thus far.
Jessica Long (10:41):
Paralympics, we do different things where we give back to the up-and-coming generation where we go and we swim at the swim meets and we just, we’re there. We’re just there to cheer on the athletes who are really scared and intimidated, and they don’t even know how to approach their challenge or what they happen to be facing. But when they see the older generation, the veterans just coming up and talking to them, you can see this light and how excited they get and how they want to be, not just an Olympic athlete, but they want to be a Paralympic athlete. And I think that for me is incredible.
Jessica Long (11:16):
I remember there was one time I was at a swim meet and this dad came up with his daughter and said that she had just lost her leg from cancer. And that moment has been stuck. I will never forget this moment that it was never really about winning gold medals that, yes, the gold medals are incredible and being a part of Team USA, but that moment where this little girl had this role model and hero really touched me in this way. That is probably why I’m still a part of this and aiming for my fifth Paralympics. And I think right now, my job is still to keep swimming and to still keep proving that others can do it. But I get really excited for what’s to come when this chapter of my life comes to an end, this swimming career, where I want to take it and where I want to see change even within the Paralympic Movement.
Jay Ruderman (12:01):
So is there much interaction between Olympians and Paralympians? Is there training together? Do you work on strategy together?
Jessica Long (12:11):
Not as much as I would like. We actually are separate, so there’s USA swimming and we have our own NGB within Paralympics. So we don’t do a ton… Actually, we don’t do anything really together, which is a thing I would like to change. I would love to see us do more swim meets together. In other countries, they have meets together. They have their Olympic and Paralympic trials together. And that’s something that I would love to see happen within my lifetime with swimming.
Jessica Long (12:36):
But for me, when I was swimming in Paralympics, I would tell people… People would brag or say, “Oh my goodness, she’s won some Paralympic medals,” or, “she’s won Olympic medals.” And someone would turn to me and say, “Oh my gosh, you’re an Olympian.” And I’d be like, “Well, yes. Yeah. I mean, I’m a Paralympian, it’s the same thing.” And as soon as I said I was a Paralympic athlete, you could just tell that they went from this respect to this amazing like, “Oh my gosh, an Olympic athlete,” to, “Oh, what’s wrong with you?” Or, “Oh, you’re a Paralympic athlete.” And that I just…
Jessica Long (13:08):
I always had this itch and this drive to prove that Paralympic athletes were elite athletes too. And I moved from the Olympic training center in Colorado to Baltimore in 2013. And I trained with Michael Phelps. I trained under Bob Bowman. I think that proved to me that every day I had to give 110%, but just to compete or just to train with the Olympic athletes to prove that I never have to tell someone if I’m just as good as an Olympic athlete. I trained with them. I did the work that Michael Phelps did. We were teammates.
Jay Ruderman (13:38):
Tell me what type of discrimination you faced in your life outside of sport, being a person with a disability, stigma that you’ve faced, how you’ve dealt with that stigma, how you’ve overcome it.
Jessica Long (13:52):
I’ve had wonderful parents who, when I was growing up, they really taught me that kids were curious. And if they stare, that was okay. I always had a harder time when adults would stare and point. And something that I face on the daily, I would say is just parking in handicap. People parking in handicap might have a heart disease. It could be an invisible disability. And for me, I park in handicap parking because I’m missing two legs. If it’s warm out, I start to sweat. If it’s snowing, if it’s raining, these are all elements that I notice walking in two prosthetic legs.
Jessica Long (14:23):
And I get a lot of pretty nasty comments and that’s not really cool. And I try to really remain calm or try to share, “Hey, I’m an amputee. That’s kind of why I’m parking…” And that’s something that I would really love to change and just teach people that you don’t always see, you don’t always know what’s going on and to not judge before you… And you don’t even need to really know, but that’s one thing I face all the time. And even to the point where I’ve thought maybe I don’t want to park in handicap because it can just be so exhausting, but I’ve decided that if I don’t park in handicap, that’s kind of giving into what they’re saying. And I do need it. I just decided to just continue to talk and talk calmly and just say, “Hey, you don’t know. That’s okay, but I do park in handicap because I need it.”
Speaker 2 (15:09):
You’re listening to All Inclusive with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more, view the show notes and transcripts at rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.
Jay Ruderman (15:20):
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Jay Ruderman (15:27):
I mean, there’s obviously a great deal of stigma about disability out there. Let me ask you something a little bit that you’ve been very outspoken on, which is an issue that’s important. In Sports Illustrated and other publications have written about this, about cheating that goes on within the Paralympics and maybe athletes who are posing as Paralympians, but are not truly disabled. I‘m just curious as your point of view on it.
Jessica Long (15:55):
Going into the 2016 Rio Games, it was very evident it was going to happen. And I was kind of scared. I was 24. I was still learning my voice, learning that people would even listen, that I had a voice to begin with. It really was an issue back then. I mean, it’s been an ongoing issue. It really started affecting my classification in the 2016 Games. What we’re dealing with right now is just that the IPC hasn’t really addressed it instead of acknowledging that there was an issue that I understand it’s never going to be this perfect system. And it’s really hard to classify so many different types of challenges or disabilities.
Jessica Long (16:32):
I think there’s different ways to be able to look at it. And the big picture is ruining Paralympics. I think ultimately it’s ruining for the next generation to come up because what will end up happening is you’ll have a person right now in my classification who’s an S10. So two classes higher. Sometimes S10s look completely able-body. You don’t really know what’s even wrong. So that means they could have two arms and two legs. Drop down from two classes, nothing’s changed and she’ll break all the world records. Right now, she’s breaking every world record by, I mean, smashing these world records. And then if she gets… She’s up for review in 2021, she’ll move, but the records remain the same or they don’t change. And she gets to keep her medals.
Jessica Long (17:12):
And I mean, I think it’s the new doping within Paralympics is kind of what’s going on and people are doing it intentionally, but they’re not calling it. And even though there’s records of athletes swimming slower in the review swim, and then dropping 10 seconds at night once they’re confirmed and breaking the world record, I think that’s a pretty big indication. And what I really wanted to address with that article was if not me, then who? And again, swimming has given me this platform and you don’t have to love me. You don’t have to like what I’m doing, but this is such a bigger issue than me. And the amount of support that I’ve gotten through this article, I didn’t even know I had people who were supporting me in the way that they have just re-posting.
Jessica Long (17:53):
Especially through social media, I’ve gotten a lot of great messages that just like, “Thank you. Now that you’re saying this, I want to say something too.” But it’s a really big issue. And it’s hard to put it all within a couple of minutes, but I would love to see it changed. And I’m really thankful that the Paralympics can’t take away what I’ve already done, winning those medals. But I am a really strong voice and I don’t back down easily and I’m going to keep fighting for the next little girl or boy that wants to compete in the 2028 Games.
Jay Ruderman (18:21):
How can it stop? Bigger crack down by certain committees, better oversight? How do you stop this problem?
Jessica Long (18:29):
Yeah. So we actually have something in place. It talks about misrepresentation. And it’s a two year ban, which is just as serious as doping. If you happen to take a substance, it’s a very serious thing and we’ve never used it in swimming. They use it in archery, maybe in 2006 was the last time. And we have cases that we had presented to the IPC that say, “Hey, look at the records. Look at the way that people are swimming.” But also I think it would be really great to try a surprise… We have surprise drug testing. Drug testing needs to know where I am every single day for one hour, but I think we should do some surprise classification where throughout the entire year, you don’t know when you’re going to be up for review.
Jessica Long (19:12):
Because the problem is these athletes know when they’re being reviewed by the classifiers. So they know that tonight I’m going to be looked at, so I’m going to swim slower. I’m not going to kick, or I’m going to add time. It’s a way of knowing. And I think we maybe should try a little bit more of a surprise kind of attack. Like, “Hey, we have a World Series. There’s five swim meets. In one of these World Series that you compete in, we’re going to be testing out and reviewing, but you don’t know. You have no idea.” And also informing the classifiers. A lot of the classifiers don’t really understand the history of some of these athletes. And I think just as long as we’re talking about it, that’s a good start.
Jay Ruderman (19:51):
From the outside, it would seem you either are competing with a disability that is a visible disability, or you’re not. But I guess, it’s not as simple as that and the classifications are much more complicated. I mean, that’s what I’m hearing.
Jessica Long (20:08):
Yes. It’s pretty complicated, but there’ll be stuff like people with CP will take cold showers before their review swim, or just people swimming extremely slow. And as athletes, we have seen these athletes or these swimmers swim for years. So when all of a sudden you’re swimming significantly slower and then drop down a classification and win gold and everything, I think that’s a little bit of an indication that wait a second, there’s a red flag here.
Jessica Long (20:30):
Also, I think if you get moved from a classification, then your records go with you and your gold medals and everything. And especially if it’s misrepresentation. But I think the big thing is right now in the S8 category, there’s not a lot of amputees, most amputees can’t and we’re losing athletes. And I think that’s really the sad thing is that I’ve had a few girls write me and decided to retire because there’s no point in competing. In their eyes, there’s no point in competing because it’s a fight that they just feel like they can’t fight.
Jay Ruderman (20:59):
Well, first of all, thank you for your advocacy. And thank you for trying to keep sport more pure and honest, which I think is what people are looking for. Let me ask you, we’re living in the time of a coronavirus pandemic. How are you doing during this time and how’s your family doing? Are you able to train? Are you able to keep yourself physically fit during this time?
Jessica Long (21:24):
I’m doing okay. Swimming, we’re going on week three now that we’ve been quarantined. My husband is working from home. I have not been able to swim. I did find a pool that was about two hours away. And I drove to that pool a couple of days before it got shut down as well. Family’s good. We’re all just kind of hanging in there, doing our part. But yeah, it is tough. I worry a lot about the disabled community.
Jessica Long (21:46):
And I had this crazy thought the other day. I need a lot of rubbing alcohol for my legs, my prosthetics to clean them a deep clean, and I just realized it’s completely gone. I have no idea where to even go to get it. And I was just thinking, if something as small as rubbing alcohol that I need, it brings light to what are others doing? And someone who’s in a wheelchair or who might be missing both arms or who really is struggling. And I think that, that really hit home. That goodness, we all just need to really do our part and help each other and not take more than what we need. I think that’s been a huge thing. Just seeing that.
Jay Ruderman (22:21):
Is it throwing your training schedule off, the fact that we’re now under quarantine?
Jessica Long (22:26):
I’m used to swimming about five hours a day. And if you miss a day of swimming, it takes about two, two and a half days to get back into it. So right now it’s been about three weeks since I’ve really been able to swim. So I’m trying to do my best to do home workouts, I’m staying mentally strong, taking care of my mental health, as well as my physical and just trying to stay in a routine. I think that’s been the best thing for me.
Jay Ruderman (22:48):
What is your recommendations for people who are at home to keep themselves active? What should they be doing, I mean, in terms of physical and mental health?
Jessica Long (22:57):
I think journaling is incredible. I think if you can just write your thoughts. We all have cell phones these days, even just going to your notes and writing how you’re feeling that day, what you’re grateful for, what you want to work on. And I think just understanding that you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete training, right? You can do abs 15 minutes and there are so many amazing websites. YouTube is incredible. There’s so many things that you can do online and find these quick little workouts just to get your heart rate up. And I think that exercise really helps with even the mental health and just feeling better or just feeling more alive or awake. And I noticed that if I feel sluggish, as soon as I do a little 15 to 30 minute workout, the day seems better and brighter. I really am big on gratitude and just being thankful that I’m still at home, I’ve got some food and I understand that not everyone has that. And just, yeah, doing the best that we can.
Jay Ruderman (23:49):
Most people in this world will never win a gold medal. What does it feel like to win the medal, to represent your country?
Jessica Long (23:59):
In that moment when you’re standing up there and you’re hearing your national anthem, it’s not even about that moment. It’s so crazy. It’s about the coaches or your coach who pushed you on that practice that you fought him or you didn’t want to do it. Or your parents for all those years of driving you back and forth to swim practice with other kids. My parents had six kids and they found a way to drive me morning and night to swim practice. And your friends and your supporters and your sponsors. It’s every single person who believed in you. And it’s like, this moment is for all of us. It’s everyone who believed in me. Yes, I’m standing here with this gold medal, but it’s so much bigger because you realize that no one can take it away from you. You’re standing up there and you’re getting the gold medal and your heart is beating so fast. And you’re looking over the pool that you just won the race. I mean, I want to do it again.
Jay Ruderman (24:46):
I’m sure you’ll be successful. One of the more sort of mundane questions, but I’m just curious, what does a Paralympian eat before you compete?
Jessica Long (24:55):
Yeah, it’s a lot of pasta, but it’s not too much pasta, a lot of fruits and veggies, protein. If anything, it’s eating every couple hours to make sure that our body is constantly burning the fuel. But just being the healthiest that you can be. And that means sleeping a lot and recovery and staying strong. And at the same time, you’re putting in so much work in the pool that you feel it if you’re eating bad stuff, but I do allow myself to eat like sushi. I would say sushi is probably like the worst thing I eat.
Jay Ruderman (25:22):
So when you’re training, how many calories a day are you consuming?
Jessica Long (25:25):
It’s not as many. It’s good calories. I would say probably around 3000, 3,500 in heavy training, which I probably swim about 50 miles by six days. So I swim a lot. It’s just the preparation takes a long time.
Jay Ruderman (25:39):
In 2014, in the Sochi Olympics, the Winter Olympics, you were a commentator for NBC. What was that like? And maybe, once your career is over, what are your plans? I mean, is that something you’re looking to get into more?
Jessica Long (25:58):
Yeah, that was a pretty incredible experience. When these crazy opportunities come up, I’ve always wanted to just say yes to them. I want to try new things. I want to get out of my comfort zone. And that was definitely something that was really out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if many people knew this, but two months prior to going there to commentate, I just met my birth family in Russia. So I had just been back to Russia and then commentated for the Sochi Games. So it was cool how it all kind of played a role, but it was hard. It was so hard to be behind the camera and to ask the questions and to think ahead, and if they answered the question within the question and it was my next question ask, how do you come up with the next question? And I loved it. It was hard, but I like doing hard things.
Jessica Long (26:45):
And something I really would love to do and get more into, I like watching different YouTube clippings and just trying to learn body language and how to hold and just learning the best that I can. And again, right now I’m still swimming. And now that Tokyo has pushed back another year, I’ve got some extra time. Still training. But once swimming is done, and I don’t know what that could look like. I don’t know. I have this weird goal and desire to end my career in LA in 2028, but that’s another, what, eight years. So we’ll see if maybe I’ll commentate that games, but for now I still love swimming.
Jessica Long (27:21):
It’s been really great, but I love motivational speaking or just being a life coach type thing. I think people really need hope and encouragement and teaching how to be number one in the world or number one at what you’re doing. I love talking about those topics or giving back to the community. And especially my heart is within the disabled community, for sure. I know firsthand what that’s like to feel different and to just be different, but to also learn that we were born to stand out and there’s a reason. And that is really exciting to me.
Jay Ruderman (27:53):
Any interest in acting?
Jessica Long (27:57):
Never have done acting, but my sister is the actor. But yeah, who knows. That could be fun too.
Jay Ruderman (28:01):
Because we’ve been very engaged as a foundation in the entertainment industry. And we’ve gotten to meet a lot of champions of people in the industry who are looking to cast people with disabilities. We just honored the Farrelly brothers who are directors and have produced many successful comedies. And I think that if it’s something you’re interested in, I’m sure there’s opportunities to make the right connection.
Jay Ruderman (28:30):
So it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. You’re by far one of the most accomplished individuals we’ve had on this broadcast. And I know the disability community has many, many people who are great spokespeople, but you’re amongst them and I think that you can be a great advocate as well as a great athlete. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Jessica Long (28:56):
Thank you for having me.
Speaker 2 (29:01):
All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast, be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.