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After accident, Olympian Jamie Nieto wants to walk for his wedding

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On good days, American high jumper Jamie Nieto can shuffle 130 steps without a cane or walker.

It’s an important distance – about the length from the altar to the church door. His vow: Make it all the way, under his own power, when he’s married on July 22.

The two-time Olympian is recovering from a spinal cord injury he suffered on a misjudged backflip in April 2016. The accident initially left him with no feeling in his hands and feet. Walking? Doctors couldn’t predict if he would take more than a few steps – or any at all.

“People keep saying my recovery is really fast,” said the 40-year-old Nieto, who lives in Los Angeles. “I feel like it’s not fast enough. I want to be better tomorrow. I’m built for speed, not for going slow. But I’m working on being the best walker I can be.”

Nieto proposed to Jamaican hurdler Shevon Stoddart while in a wheelchair, six months after The Backflip. It used to be his signature move after big events.

On April 23, 2016, the maneuver went seriously wrong for the high jumper who once cleared 7 feet, 8 inches to finish fourth at the 2004 Olympics. He was coaching some jumpers when he showed them his backflip expertise. His first attempt was a little off, and he asked for another try.

This time, he pushed off with one foot on the artificial turf and it slipped, forcing him straight back instead of into a somersault. The full weight of his body crashed on his neck.

“I couldn’t really feel anything. I was stuck there. I was like, `Oh shoot, I hurt myself pretty bad,”‘ recalled Nieto . “I had the athletes call 911.”

He was flown to a nearby hospital in Los Angeles and had surgery to fuse a disc in his neck. When he awoke, he could only shrug his shoulders and flex his quadriceps muscles. His hands and feet?

“Nothing,” Nieto said. “But I knew I was going to make a full recovery. There was never a doubt.”

The high jumper who finished sixth at the 2012 London Games spent 12 days in intensive care, two months at an inpatient rehab facility and finally returned home around this time a year ago.

At first, routine tasks were a struggle: Rolling up to get out of bed, brushing his teeth, getting dressed.

He didn’t have insurance, either. So his friends launched a campaign that’s raised more than $80,000.

Just like his days on the track, Nieto is driven as he goes through grinding workouts five days a week. He documents his progress on social media, with one of his posts – lifting weights and pushing a sled – being viewed more than 4,000 times .

“Physically, I wasn’t the most talented athlete, but I worked really hard,” said Nieto, who once demonstrated his leaping ability by high jumping a car. “I had the mental capacity to fight to the end. At that level, it’s what separates good athletes from great athletes.

“I’m still trying to push those boundaries and limits.”

He met Stoddart around 2010 – a story he enjoys telling. They both showed up to audition for a television commercial “to sell TVs,” Nieto said. “I just said,’Hi.”‘

She got the part.

“Guess I should’ve focused on more than saying, ‘Hi,”‘ he laughed.

Soon after, they became Facebook friends, and one day he dropped Stoddart a note that they should have dinner after a track meet.

She agreed. An instant connection between the high jumper and the 400m hurdler.

“We were talking about getting married before the accident, and when I had the accident it was clear to me, ‘What are we waiting on?’ You never know – you could be gone tomorrow,” Nieto said. “I asked her if she was ready to get married now or wait until I got better.”

Wait, she said.

She’s been there for him throughout his recovery, feeding him in the hospital when he couldn’t lift his arms, helping him get dressed when his fingers struggled with buttons and transferring him from his wheelchair to the bed when he struggled.

“As I get better and getter, she has to do less and less,” Nieto said. “She’s done so much for me.”

In mid-October, they went to a jewelry store to pick up the ring they’d selected. He proposed to her on the spot and in his wheelchair. He promised he would be ready to walk down the aisle by the wedding date.

A few months ago, that didn’t seem likely without assistance. He could only take six shaky steps on his own.

Soon, it was 23 steps. Then 53, 80 and now 130 for their wedding at a church in San Diego.

Stoddart’s response? Go for 200.

“I keep pushing him forward,” said Stoddart, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to Uniondale, New York, as a kid. “After he (walks down the aisle), I’m going to be like, ‘OK, now jog. Now run.’ I continue to push him so he can be the best he can be.”

Before his injury, Nieto wrote screenplays and appeared in movies, such as the film “Baseball’s Last Hero : 21 Clemente Stories” in which he played Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente. He continues that work, finishing a script for an episode of the TV show “Family Time” and making a cameo in a soap opera, where he plays the role of a doctor.

Nieto also is 10 chapters into a book about his recovery that he hopes to turn into a film. He already has the leading actor picked out – himself.

“I don’t see why not? I plan to be 100 percent again,” Nieto said. “I don’t think there will be any dry eyes in the theater.”

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Atlanta hosts 2020 Olympic marathon trials; full history of trials cities

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Atlanta will host the U.S. Olympic marathon trials for the first time on Feb. 29, 2020, joining a long list of cities to stage the event.

The top three male and female finishers will make the Tokyo team. The early favorites include Rio bronze medalist Galen Rupp, Boston Marathon winner Des Linden and world championships bronze medalist Amy Cragg. New York City Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan cast doubt on whether she would go for a fifth Olympics in 2020.

The U.S. Olympic marathon team wasn’t chosen by race results until 1908.

Arthur Blake was the first U.S. Olympic marathoner at the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. How was he chosen for the team? From Bill Mallon of the OlyMADMen and USA Track and Field in 2004:

“At an indoor meet in February in Boston, Art Blake won his [1,000-yard] distance race easily and joked, ‘Oh, I am too good for Boston. I ought to go over and run the marathon in Athens.’ The remark was overheard by Arthur Burnham, a wealthy stockbroker who agreed to partly finance the trip for a group of Boston Athletic Association athletes.”

Blake dropped out of the 1896 Olympic marathon after 14 miles. Greek Spyridon Louis famously won.

Various men competed for the U.S. in the Olympic marathon in 1900, 1904 and 1906 before marathons began being used as qualifiers. The trials host list from Mallon and USATF:

1908: Boston, St. Louis
1912: Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York (modified to about 12 miles)
1920: Boston, Brooklyn, Detroit, New York
1924: Boston
1928: Boston, Chesapeake Bay, New York to Long Beach AAU Championship race
1932: Boston, Baltimore
1936: Boston, AAU Championship in Washington
1940: Boston, Yonkers (N.Y.)
1948: Boston, Yonkers
1952: Boston, Yonkers
1956: Boston, Yonkers
1960: Boston, Yonkers
1964: Culver City (Calif.), Yonkers
1968: Alamosa (Colo.)
1972: Eugene (Ore.)
1976: Eugene
1980: Niagara Falls (N.Y.)
1984: Buffalo (N.Y.), Olympia (Wash.)
1988: Jersey City (N.J.), Pittsburgh
1992: Columbus (Ohio), Houston
1996: Charlotte, Columbia (S.C.)
2000: Pittsburgh, Columbia
2004: Birmingham, St. Louis
2008: New York, Boston
2012: Houston
2016: Los Angeles
2020: Atlanta

The Olympic women’s marathon debuted in 1984. Separate host cities were used for men’s and women’s trials from 1984 through 2008.

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Kayla Harrison sets MMA debut fight after post-Olympic depression

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Double Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison will make her MMA debut on June 21 at a Professional Fighters League (PFL) event in Chicago.

The fight, against an opponent Harrison chose not to publicly reveal Monday, will be 20 months since Harrison first announced she joined the promotion and would maybe fight.

“I’ve been waiting for a long time to fight,” Harrison, 27, said on the MMA Hour on Monday. “First, it was more me. I just wanted to get my feet wet, get in there, see if I liked getting punched in the face. Now that I’ve established that I do, we’ve sort of been waiting for the PFL to get their stuff together. So, their stuff is together.”

Harrison said her first two planned opponents for the 145-pound fight (27 pounds fewer than her Olympic weight) pulled out for reasons unknown to her.

“I don’t care who I fight,” said Harrison, the only U.S. Olympic judo champion, who hopes to fight three times this year. “It’s tough because I’m 0-0 in MMA. So it’s not like I’m going to fight someone who’s 10-0. But I think it’s difficult when you have two Olympic gold medals behind your name. Like people are kind of like, are you really an amateur?”

Harrison also said Monday that she was “very depressed” after the Rio Olympics, knowing she was done with judo, not setting a morning alarm or working out and “laying in bed all day” watching TV.

“I was a little bit lost in my life,” she said. “That high is so high that when you come off of that, it’s like your low. You don’t know what to do with yourself.”

Her coaches, Jimmy Pedro and Jim Pedro Sr., were against Harrison filling that void with MMA.

“Even if I was a millionaire or independently wealthy and I had no worries and I didn’t have to work, I would still be doing what I’m doing,” Harrison said. “I think at the beginning I was kind of like skittish about it. It’s tough, too, because everyone is always like, well look at Ronda [Rousey], you always have the comparisons. It’s so different from the judo world, but I’m kind of loving it. I’m kind of starting to become my own person in MMA, if that makes sense. In judo, I always had certain expectations. Everyone is sort of like, this is Kayla. This is the golden girl. This is the poster child, and so I always felt like that’s who I had to be. But in MMA, no one really knows me. Nobody cares about judo.”

In October 2016, Harrison announced she joined MMA promotion World Series of Fighting (now PFL) as a commentator, brand ambassador and potentially a fighter. But she wasn’t 100 percent committed to competing at the time.

“All signs point to a yes, but everything has to work out,” Harrison said then.

Then in June 2017, Harrison said she would fight starting in 2018. The debut was pushed from February to June.

Harrison had been asked time and again for years about her interest in pursuing MMA. That’s in part because of former training partner Rousey’s overwhelming success after she switched from Olympic judo to MMA.

Harrison took boxing and jiu-jitsu lessons as far back as 2013, which should boost her MMA potential. Since Rio, she’s trained in New Jersey, Las Vegas and now Florida.

Harrison previously said that to compete in MMA she will require a weight cut from her Olympic judo class of 172 pounds.

Rousey competed at 135 pounds, the heaviest women’s weight class in UFC at the time. UFC added a 145-pound division last year. Harrison said in 2016 that if she fought, it would probably be at 145 pounds.

PFL, which had no women’s weight class when Harrison signed up, planned to develop a women’s program as Harrison readied for a potential debut. Harrison said Sunday that PFL’s plan is to have a full women’s division in 2019.

“I want to be the best, undisputed,” Harrison said. “I want everyone to say, oh, who’s the best MMA fighter in the world? Oh, that’s Kayla Harrison.”

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