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

AP
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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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VIDEO: Olympic hurdles champion left lying on Paris track

Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth

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France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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