He has set the bar high in his re­cov­ery

For­mer Olympic high jumper Ni­eto was par­a­lyzed last year. Now he’s work­ing hard with a big goal in mind.

Los Angeles Times - - PERSONAL FINANCE - By Nathan Fenno

Jamie Ni­eto sprawled face down in the grass near the high jump pit at Azusa Pa­cific Univer­sity’s de­serted Cougar Ath­letic Sta­dium, un­able to feel his arms or legs.

The two-time Olympic high jumper’s mind raced. An in­stant ear­lier, he had fin­ished an­other ses­sion coach­ing four Olympic hope­fuls by per­form­ing a cou­ple of back­flips. He had reeled them off hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of times at the end of each com­pe­ti­tion be­fore re­tir­ing in 2013. But on the warm April morn­ing last year, the 39-year-old’s foot slipped. He knew in midair that the flip had gone wrong. His neck crashed into the ground, fol­lowed by the rest of his body.

Ni­eto’s ch­est felt like a tight band en­cased it. He prayed he wasn’t par­a­lyzed.

T.J. Shankar, who grew up in In­dia watch­ing videos of Ni­eto’s jumps, fig­ured his coach was kid­ding around. Jil­lian Sch­midt, a for­mer Cal Poly Pomona jumper aim­ing for the U.S. Olympic Tri­als, thought Ni­eto’s body shook from laugh­ter. They were con­vul­sions, not laughs.

Ni­eto wheezed three words: “I ... can’t ... move.”

Sam Saidi, who had re­lo­cated from Kansas a few months ear­lier to train with Ni­eto, called 911.

[Ni­eto,

“We need an am­bu­lance right now. Our coach hit his head,” Saidi told the op­er­a­tor, the words spilling out al­most too quickly to un­der­stand. “Please hurry up.”

Some­one screamed “Coach Jamie! Coach Jamie!” in the back­ground. An­other per­son told Ni­eto in a calm voice: “You’re go­ing to be OK.”

Fol­low­ing the op­er­a­tor’s in­struc­tions, the group rolled Ni­eto onto his side to help him breathe. Sch­midt cra­dled the coach’s head in her hands.

They ad­mired Ni­eto, see­ing him as the joke-crack­ing, per­fec­tion­ist leader of their jump-happy fam­ily. He had a mag­netic smile and re­mained re­lent­lessly pos­i­tive, no mat­ter what ob­sta­cle they faced dur­ing prac­tices five days each week. He left noth­ing to chance: long vi­su­al­iza­tion ses­sions to pre­pare for any sit­u­a­tion and the thick folder called “the bi­ble” filled with ev­ery de­tail of the pro­gram. They idol­ized him and now they choked back tears and panic.

Ni­eto’s eyes seemed un­usu­ally calm. He looked as if he had ac­cepted what hap­pened. He asked the ath­letes to pray.

“It’s go­ing to be all right,” Ni­eto told him­self, “You just have to go through this.”

One of the jumpers, Dar­ius Pur­cell, fetched a Bi­ble from his car and placed it next to the coach. Saidi shouted prayers. One hand rested on the Bi­ble, the other hand ex­tended sky­ward.

Dur­ing a five-hour surgery at L.A. County-USC Med­i­cal Cen­ter, doc­tors re­moved a disk from Ni­eto’s neck and fused the C3 and C4 ver­te­brae to­gether. The disk jammed into the spine, but it re­mained in­tact. In a wait­ing room, a doc­tor told Sch­midt and the other jumpers it wasn’t clear if Ni­eto could walk again. He was par­tially par­a­lyzed from the neck down.

Raised in Sacra­mento, Ni­eto started jump­ing af­ter be­ing cut from Val­ley High’s bas­ket­ball team as a ju­nior. It wasn’t easy. Ni­eto fig­ured he had more down meets than suc­cess­ful ones. He bounced from Sacra­mento City Col­lege to Eastern Michi­gan Univer­sity, where he still holds the school’s in­door high jump record. He fin­ished fourth at the Athens Olympics in 2004, then at age 35, be­came the old­est male high jumper to make the U.S. Olympic team and placed sixth at the Lon­don Olympics in 2012.

Ni­eto won four U.S. cham­pi­onships. He had a per­sonal best of 7 feet, 8 inches. He even jumped over a Volk­swa­gen sedan. A back­flip — some­times re­placed with a back hand­spring — be­came his sig­na­ture move af­ter ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion.

Re­tire­ment wasn’t any less ac­tive. He played Roberto Cle­mente in a 2013 film about the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates Hall of Famer, wrote screen­plays, coached at USC and, on a whim, could still clear 6-10 with­out any train­ing or a full ap­proach.

Now a tube snaked down his throat to help him breathe. He blinked to com­mu­ni­cate with his girl­friend, Shevon Stod­dart, a twotime Olympic hur­dler for Ja­maica. She re­cited the al­pha­bet; his eye­lids flut­tered at the cor­rect let­ter to spell each word.

“I feel like the Olympic Games were a warmup for what he has to do now,” said Stod­dart, who met Ni­eto five years ago dur­ing an au­di­tion for a com­mer­cial.

The tube came out. Ni­eto strug­gled to take a deep breath. The shal­low, halt­ing breaths left him pan­icked. In those mo­ments, he felt like he was dy­ing.

Ni­eto pestered doc­tors about when he could start re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. He told them he’d re­turn to film­ing movies in the next year. He shrugged. Squeezed his legs to­gether. Moved a fore­arm. The process never seemed to move quickly enough. He screamed at his feet to move when Sch­midt and Saidi and the rest of the jumpers vis­ited. They prayed; the feet stayed in place.

Three nurses had to help Ni­eto shower. Left alone, he’d teeter and fall over. He had no core sta­bil­ity. He couldn’t sit up or bend over. He felt as help­less as a new­born. He cried.

Three weeks af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Ni­eto’s right in­dex fin­ger twitched. He had moved to the Ran­cho Los Ami­gos Na­tional Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Downey. Each morn­ing, he imag­ined squeez­ing his hands to­gether 300 times. He felt like the hands ac­tu­ally moved, though they re­mained still. The twitch changed ev­ery­thing. By the day’s end, he had moved seven of his fin­gers and all of his toes.

He didn’t like to see his re­flec­tion in mir­rors or watch old high jump­ing videos. They were too painful. And, be­sides, he wanted to move for­ward.

“Maybe af­ter 20 years of high jump­ing it’s just pro­grammed into my life and my thoughts,” Ni­eto said. “OK, I’m down now, but how can I do bet­ter? I’ve got to get bet­ter.”

A few days be­fore leav­ing Ran­cho Los Ami­gos on July 6, Ni­eto posted a prom­ise on Face­book. The words were fa­mil­iar to any­one who knew him.

“I'm go­ing to Walk again, I'm go­ing to Run again, I have the Fight of an Olympian.”

On an over­cast af­ter­noon in May, Ni­eto faced a floorto-ceil­ing mir­ror in­side Project Walk’s re­hab fa­cil­ity in Clare­mont. He hefted an inch-thick wooden dowel. Once, twice, three times. His arms trem­bled. Veins bulged. He grinned.

“I’m get­ting higher,” said Ni­eto, wear­ing a gray T-shirt from the 2012 U.S. Olympic tri­als.

The 40-year-old lost his bal­ance and lurched to­ward the mir­ror. “Whoa,” Ni­eto said. Skye Sev­erns, a re­cov­ery spe­cial­ist, grabbed his ch­est. “I got you,” Sev­erns said. This is what re­cov­ery looks like. Four two-hour ses­sions each week plus a fifth day at his South Pasadena home. At first, Stod­dart had to lift Ni­eto from his wheel­chair and onto the blue mat used for some of the ex­er­cises. When he tran­si­tioned to a walker, the jour­ney from the car to the mat took 40 min­utes. Now it’s down to seven min­utes. They time ev­ery­thing.

And, re­ally, each day presents a new ob­sta­cle. Ni­eto needed 45 min­utes to tie one shoe for the first time. The ex­er­tion left him drenched in sweat. With each small vic­tory, Stod­dart gen­tly pushes him to do more. Turn­ing on a lamp. Show­er­ing on a bench by him­self. Comb­ing his hair. Putting on a shirt. Bench press­ing 10 pounds. She wants him to find so­lu­tions with­out her help.

Ev­ery­thing be­low the ch­est still feels numb and tingly for Ni­eto. He com­pares the sen­sa­tion to hit­ting your funny bone. The feel­ing isn’t as in­tense as pre­vi­ous months. He knows what toe is be­ing touched, for ex­am­ple, but the feel­ing is numb and dis­tant. His arms feel hot and cold with maybe 70% of their old sen­sa­tion. His legs feel pres­sure, but not pain. The left side of his body is stronger, more mo­bile than the right side, one of the mys­ter­ies of re­cov­ery. Each day seems to bring more progress.

Af­ter the ac­ci­dent, doc­tors pre­dicted Ni­eto might re­gain 30% of his body’s pre­vi­ous func­tion. He still chafes at the es­ti­mate and fig­ures he’s at 60% or 70%. The doc­tors haven’t given him an­other num­ber.

“They don’t know,” Ni­eto said. “I’m well be­yond 30%.”

He has adapted to a body in tran­si­tion. He sold his first screen­play in May for the Bounce TV show “Fam­ily Time.” He dic­tated it on his iPhone, then pecked out ed­its with his thumbs. He used the same ap­proach to write the first 10 chap­ters of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and col­lab­o­rate with Stod­dart on the script for a hor­ror film about a mur­derer. He wants to coach again and even joked with Shankar about com­pet­ing in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

“I felt like God told me I’m go­ing to make a full re­cov­ery. I’ve just got to go through this,” Ni­eto said. “You’re go­ing to make it. You’ve just got to keep go­ing, keep push­ing.”

Walk­ing might be the hard­est part. Ni­eto rolled onto his stom­ach, then awk­wardly propped him­self up on all fours. His body shook. He po­si­tioned him­self to sit on the edge of the mat. The ses­sions leave him feel­ing like he spent hours run­ning up and down sta­dium stairs.

Ni­eto’s legs trem­bled as he shuf­fled to­ward Sev­erns.

“Ev­ery step is get­ting quicker,” Ni­eto said.

He panted and shook and smiled.

Ni­eto’s first unas­sisted jour­ney last year spanned three steps. Then six steps, 12 steps, 23 steps and fi­nally 53 steps on the one-year an­niver­sary of the ac­ci­dent. Now he’s up to 80 steps. They aren’t fast, re­quir­ing ev­ery bit of men­tal and phys­i­cal en­ergy he can sum­mon.

Three steps, pause. Stay bal­anced. Three steps, pause. Don’t rest against the wall.

When his body feels as if it’s tee­ter­ing or fa­tigue creeps in, he shoves the thoughts aside. The next step is all that mat­ters. Well, al­most.

“I re­al­ized what I wanted out of life,” Ni­eto said. “What was I wait­ing for?”

He tried to pro­pose to Stod­dart in the hospi­tal. She wanted him to fo­cus on re­cov­er­ing. Last Oc­to­ber, she pushed his wheel­chair into a jew­elry store at the Del Amo Fashion Cen­ter in Tor­rance. A clerk handed a small box to Ni­eto.

“Luck­ily, my hands were work­ing well enough,” he said.

Ni­eto pried the box open, pulled out the ring and asked Stod­dart to marry him. She said yes.

They sched­uled a July wed­ding at a church in San Diego. All the progress and the pain, the lit­tle vic­to­ries and the tears point to one goal.

The trip down the aisle and back re­quires 150 steps. Ni­eto plans to walk ev­ery one.

‘Maybe af­ter 20 years of high jump­ing it’s just pro­grammed into my life and my thoughts. OK, I’m down now, but how can I do bet­ter? I’ve got to get bet­ter.’ — Jamie Ni­eto

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

JAMIE NI­ETO was par­tially par­a­lyzed from the neck down last year.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

RE­COV­ERY SPE­CIAL­IST Skye Sev­erns, left, works with Jamie Ni­eto last month in Project Walk’s fa­cil­ity in Clare­mont. “Ev­ery step is get­ting quicker,” Ni­eto says.

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