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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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Snowboarders, freeskiers get last Olympic qualifying chance

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Many stars already qualified for PyeongChang — Shaun WhiteChloe KimJamie Anderson among them — but three Olympic gold medalists go into the last U.S. snowboard/freeski qualifier this week with work to do.

Two of them are in the same event.

Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter, the 2002 and 2006 Olympic snowboard halfpipe champions, are in different places.

Clark, 34, is trying to break her own record as the oldest U.S. halfpipe rider in Olympic history.

She can also join cross-country skier Kikkan Randall (and potentially Julia Mancuso) in PyeongChang as the only American women to compete in five Winter Olympics.

That should happen.

Clark has a pair of podium finishes from the first three Olympic qualifiers.

She’ll make the PyeongChang team this weekend (or be named the lone available discretionary pick shortly thereafter) barring some crazy finishes at her home halfpipe in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., this week.

Teter, 30, cannot feel as safe.

She finished fifth, ninth and ninth in the three qualifiers so far (and never among the top four Americans).

Four years ago, Teter did not qualify automatically for the Olympic team but was chosen with the lone discretionary spot. She followed her 2006 gold and 2010 silver with a fourth-place finish in Sochi.

Though Sochi gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington retired, the rise of teens Maddie Mastro and Kim put Teter in an even more precarious spot in this Olympic qualifying season.

Simply put, Teter cannot like her Olympic chances unless she wins this week. And she hasn’t won a top-level contest in nearly nine years.

Another Olympic champion is on the ropes in Mammoth. That’s Joss Christensen, the surprise Sochi ski slopestyle gold medalist.

Christensen returned from a May 10 torn ACL and meniscus last week to finish 43rd and 14th in two qualifiers.

He gets two final qualifiers this week to prove he deserves to defend his Olympic title in PyeongChang.

The teammates who joined Christensen on the Sochi podium — Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper — are in much safer shape.

The Olympic qualifying standings and Mammoth broadcast schedule:

Snowboard Halfpipe
Qualifying Standings 
(through three of four events)
Three riders auto qualify per gender; one possible discretionary spot
1. Shaun White — 1,800* (QUALIFIED)
1. Ben Ferguson — 1,800* (QUALIFIED)

1. Jake Pates — 1,800* (QUALIFIED)
4. Danny Davis — 1,200 (3rd and 3rd)
5. Chase Josey — 1,000 (4th and 4th)
6. Gabe Ferguson — 950 (4th and 5th)

1. Chloe Kim — 2,000* (QUALIFIED)
2. Maddie Mastro — 1,600* (2nd and 2nd)
3. Kelly Clark — 1,400* (2nd and 3rd)
4. Arielle Gold — 1,100* (3rd and 4th)
5. Hannah Teter — 900 (5th and 5th)
6. Elena Hight — 850 (5th and 6th)
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result against whole field.

Men: Nobody can clinch an automatic spot after White, Pates and Ferguson took them all last week. However, Davis (Sochi Olympian), Josey (fourth at 2017 X Games) and Gabe Ferguson (Ben’s younger brother) know that their results this week will go a long way in the eyes of a selection committee deciding on a possible fourth Olympic team member.

Women: There has been a clear tier system in U.S. women’s halfpipe this season. Kim has been in a class of her own. Then Mastro, Clark and Gold. Then Teter and Hight. Teter and Hight, who made Olympic debuts in 2006 (where Teter won gold), need to not only break into the Mastro-Clark-Gold tier this week, but also likely must beat them all to justify a spot on the Olympic team.

Snowboard Big Air/Slopestyle (through four of five events)
Three riders auto qualify per gender; one possible discretionary spot
1. Chris Corning — 2,000* QUALIFIED
1. Red Gerard — 2,000* QUALIFIED
3. Chandler Hunt — 1,400* (2nd and 3rd)
4. Kyle Mack — 1,000* (2nd and 13th)
5. Ryan Stassel — 1,400 (2nd and 3rd)
6. Judd Henkes — 1,100 (3rd and 4th)

1. Jamie Anderson — 2,000* QUALIFIED
2. Julia Marino — 1,600* (1st and 3rd)
3. Hailey Langland — 1,600* (2nd and 2nd)
4. Jessika Jenson — 1,600 (1st and 3rd)
5. Ty Walker — 1,300 (2nd and 4th)
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result against entire field.

Men: Hunt takes the last automatic Olympic spot available if he’s the top American finisher in Mammoth (aside from Corning and Gerard). Stassel is the lone 2014 Olympian in the running (Sochi gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg retired). Henkes, born in 2001, is trying to become the youngest member of the Olympic team across all sports.

Women: It looks like all three Olympic medal favorites are going to PyeongChang. Sochi gold medalist Jamie Anderson is in as the top American finisher in the first and third qualifiers. X Games slopestyle champ Marino was the top American in the second qualifier. X Games big air champ Langland was right behind Anderson in the first and third qualifiers. Neither Marino nor Langland made the final last week, which kept Jenson and Walker in the running for automatic spots. But neither Jenson nor Walker has a top-three finish against an entire field yet, keeping them behind Marino and Langland.

Ski Halfpipe (through four of five events)
Three skiers can auto qualify per gender; up to four named to Olympic team
1. David Wise — 200** QUALIFIED
2. Alex Ferreira — 180** (1st and 2nd)
3. Aaron Blunck — 140** (2nd and 3rd)
4. Torin Yater-Wallace — 150* (1st and 4th)
5. Gus Kenworthy — 116* (2nd and 7th)

1. Maddie Bowman — 140** QUALIFIED
2. Devin Logan — 130* (2nd and 4th)
2. Brita Sigourney — 130* (2nd and 4th)
4. Annalisa Drew — 95 (4th and 5th)
5. Carly Margulies — 72 (6th and 7th)
**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

Men: Somebody with great credentials is going to be left off the team. As of now, that would either be Yater-Wallace, the three-time X Games medalist who came back from life support to win the first Olympic qualifier last February, or Kenworthy, the Sochi slopestyle silver medalist. In 2014, a committee gave the last spot on the Olympic team to Yater-Wallace over Kenworthy.

Women: The top four in the standings are all Sochi Olympians, but only Bowman has qualified so far and only Logan and Sigourney can clinch in Mammoth. Drew should be safe for the potential fourth spot if she finishers higher than Margulies this week, but she wasn’t able to do that in either of the last two qualifiers.

Ski Slopestyle (women through four of five events; men through three of five)
Three skiers can auto qualify per gender; up to four named to Olympic team
1. Maggie Voisin — 180** QUALIFIED

2. Devin Logan — 90 (4th and 6th)
3. Darian Stevens — 81 (5th and 7th)
4. Julia Krass — 72 (4th and 12th)
5. Taylor Lundquist — 65 (7th and 9th)

1. Nick Goepper — 160** (2nd and 2nd)
2. Gus Kenworthy — 140* (1st and 6th)
3. McRae Williams — 79 (4th and 9th)
3. Quinn Wolferman — 79 (4th and 9th)
5. Alex Hall — 57 (5th and 19th)
**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

Women: Nobody can clinch an Olympic spot because nobody other than Voisin made a podium in the first four qualifiers. Voisin, Logan and Krass all made the Sochi team (Logan took silver). Stevens just missed the team in 2014.

Men: Anything can happen with two of the five qualifiers to be held this weekend. None of the men who swept the Sochi podium are 100 percent safe, though Goepper has to like his chances. Kenworthy, too, after a much-needed win in Snowmass, Colo., last week. The man absent from the above standings is gold medalist Joss Christensen. He returned from a May 10 torn ACL and meniscus last week to finish 43rd and 14th in two qualifiers.

Mammoth Finals (all times Eastern)
Friday

Ski Halfpipe — 9:30-11 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

Saturday
Ski Slopestyle (#1) — 12:30-2 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)
Snowboard Slopestyle — 5-6 p.m. (NBC, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)
Snowboard Halfpipe — 9:30-11 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

Sunday
Ski Slopestyle (#2) — 4:30-6 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

South, North Korea agree to form joint Olympic team, march together

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and North Korea agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and march together in the Opening Ceremony for the first time since 2006.

The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee.

But they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring cooperation during the Olympics.

During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements including fielding a joint women’s hockey team and marching together under a blue and white “unification flag” depicting their peninsula in the Opening Ceremony, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

A joint statement distributed by the ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation will travel to South Korea across their heavily fortified land border before the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Games.

It said the delegation will include a 230-member cheering group, a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team, journalists, athletes and officials.

Ahead of the Olympics, the Koreas will hold a joint cultural event at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain and have non-Olympic skiers train together at the North’s Masik ski resort, according to the statement.

It said the North also plans to send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics in March. The North earlier said it would send a 140-member art troupe.

The agreements are highly symbolic and emotional.

But it’s still not clear how many North Korean athletes will come to PyeongChang because none are currently qualified.

South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the IOC.

A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year’s Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation.

The IOC said recently it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the Games.

IOC officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the PyeongChang organizing committee in Switzerland on Saturday.

The IOC said in statement Wednesday that it has “taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources.”

“There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs (national Olympic committees) and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne,” it said.

The two Koreas sent joint teams to major international sports events twice previously, both in 1991.

One event was the world table tennis championships in Chiba, Japan, where the women’s team won the championship by beating the powerful Chinese, and the other was soccer’s World Youth Championship in Portugal, where the Korean team reached the quarterfinals.

During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of nine international sporting events including the 2000, 2004 and 2006 Olympics, but they failed to produce a joint team.

Their last joint march was at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.

The current reconciliation mood began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Games.

 

 

South Korea wants the IOC to allow its hockey team’s 23-player Olympic roster to be expanded so that several North Korean players can be added without removing any of the South Korean players.

But there are worries in South Korea that adding new players less than a month before the Olympics will weaken the team and deprive South Korean players of playing time.

Chief South Korean delegate Chun Hae-sung said the government is well aware of such concerns and North Korea has agreed that the South Korean coach Sarah Murray will be given full authority to select North Korean players to compete.

“If South and North Korea form one team and compete in the Games, that will be an everlasting historic event, which I think will move our people and people around the world,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday.

Murray said a joint team would be a distraction and present challenges, according to Yonhap News Agency.

“I think there is damage to our players,” the Canadian said Tuesday, according to Yonhap. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.

“This is another distraction, and we have to worry about things we can control. We can’t control this situation.

“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long. Teaching systems and different things … I’d have about a month to teach these (new) players the way our team plays. That makes me a little nervous.

“I hope that I am not being pressured to play (North Koreans). I am hoping we can just play the way we play and not have the influence of, ‘I need to play this player.’ I just want the best players to play. If you play your best, then you earn your ice time. Whether you’re South Korean or North Korean, they have to earn their place.”

North Korea boycotted the previous Olympics held in South Korea, the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.

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