Jamie Nieto opened the passenger door of his black SUV, slid his lanky 6-foot-4 frame to the edge of the seat, exhaled and studied his old friend: the walker.
He glared at it for an instant, as if to suggest that he has had just enough of the thing.
For now, the walker is support for legs that do not fully operate, limbs that used to bound him to record heights – and over the occasional parked sedan, showcasing his remarkable athletic ability. This four-time U.S. high jump champion and two-time Olympian from Sacramento is learning to appreciate his legs and body all over again. And to use them again. Arms, legs, all of it, like a baby mastering the crawl, then the walk, then the run, then life’s journey.
Six months ago, it would take Nieto 45 exhaustively painful minutes to walk 50 feet from the car to the front doors of his rehabilitation clinic in Los Angeles County. Now it takes less than five minutes, using the rail to steady himself, with fiancée Shevon Stoddart helping navigate.
He times everything.
“Slow motion,” Nieto said with a smile, “is better than no motion.”
Backflip that changed everything
Nieto’s signature celebration was a backflip. He has done hundreds, if not thousands, of them.
On April 23, 2016, Nieto was coaching jumpers at Azusa Pacific. To show his pupils he still has hops at 39, he attempted a backflip, but caught his foot on liftoff and landed on his head.
The athletes saw Nieto’s body convulse and assumed their gregarious coach was laughing. Nieto always laughs. But this was deadly serious. Nieto did not move. He managed to gasp out, “I ... can’t ... move.”
One athlete called 911. Another raced to grab a Bible to place in Nieto’s hand.
Nieto awoke in a Los Angeles hospital, unsure where he was, why he was there. He only knew that he was suddenly trapped in a body that did not move, did not respond. He could not speak. Only his eyes moved, darting back and forth to study his surroundings, and they struggled to focus with tears welling up.
A tube snaked down his throat helped him breathe. Stoddart, his sweetheart and a two-time Olympic hurdler for her native Jamaica, was there, holding his hands. He could not feel hers.
“First thing I remember was this voice telling me, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to be OK. You just have to go through this,’ ” Nieto said this month during a break at Project Walk, which specializes in neck and spinal cord recovery. “I tried to move, and nothing. It’s like when you hear about when someone is about to die and their entire life flashes before them. I had that. I saw everyone I could think of who had a neck or spinal injury, if they walked again, if they didn’t. And then I thought, ‘Please, God. Don’t let me be paralyzed.’ ”
A five-hour surgery removed a disk and fused two vertebrae together. Doctors would not say if he could walk again. He was diagnosed as partially paralyzed, with his shoulders involuntarily moving with muscle spasms. Nieto and Stoddart insist he was 100 percent paralyzed.
Nieto was given a 30 percent chance of regaining full use of his body. He was in intensive care for 12 days and in the hospital for eight weeks.
‘That’s my goal, to walk that aisle’
If Nieto has been inspired by one thing over the years, it’s a challenge.
He was cut from the basketball team during his junior year at Valley High School, so he turned to high jumping. He set records at Valley, Sacramento City College and Eastern Michigan.
His best high jump is 7 feet, 8 inches. Imagine leaping over Shaquille O’Neal with room for comfort. Nieto in 2012 became the oldest high jumper to make the U.S. team at 35.
And now the challenge is this: July 22.
That’s when Nieto and Stoddart will get married in San Diego. His vow includes walking down that aisle, without the walker. He has already exceeded doctor’s expectations. Nieto estimates his body is now at 60 percent. He won’t be satisfied “until I’m 100 percent.”
“That’s my goal, to walk that aisle,” Nieto said. “It’s a special day and special things should happen.”
She’s with him for every step
Nieto trained six days a week as an Olympian. He now does rehabilitation work five days a week, including sessions in his South Pasadena home. The walker helps him glide seamlessly as he zips through Project Walk. Without the walker, Nieto works on balance, his gait, his stamina, not falling down.
He has gone from three triumphant steps without the walker over the past few months to 12. Then 53, then 80, then 130. At Project Walk, Nieto often works under words from Confucius on the wall that read, “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”
Nieto works on the bench press, leg press, rolling over and core exercises to build strength. The room is often illuminated by the radiant glow of Stoddart, who has been with him every step of the way. She and Nieto cry a lot, but the tears now are of achievement and not despair. Every step and every day is savored.
“When I saw him do 22 steps,” Stoddart said, “I thought, ‘Whoa! That’s a big deal!’ Now it’s time to run, baby. He asked if he could jog first. I said, ‘No!’ ”
Candy his reward, a ring hers
Nieto’s hands locked in a partially clenched position for weeks after the accident, common for paralysis. He would stare at his fingers and will them to move.
It took nearly a month before Nieto could feel a twinge in his index finger. Progress in the smallest doses.
Stoddart worked for weeks to help flatten Nieto’s hands. Now he can tie his shoes, brush his teeth, handle a fork or a phone. He enjoys ordering boxes of candy from Amazon, explaining, “I’ve earned it after dealing with Shevon’s coaching!”
In October, Nieto mastered a goal. He was able to open a small box and pluck out a ring. He and Stoddart went to a jewelry store and picked out wedding rings. He proposed to her on the spot, from his wheelchair.
“Jamie’s worked so hard, and I’m so proud, and when he put that ring on my finger, it was so sweet,” Stoddart said. “After he does a lot of steps, sometimes his body would spasm and I’d joke that he was trying to do some sort of new dance. He can’t dance like that at the wedding!”
Escaping imprisonment of his body
Nieto can sleep nine hours now.
He can roll over in bed, no longer needing help from Stoddart to prevent bedsores. He can shower without the fear of falling on his face. His body is no longer a prison.
The sleepless nights in the hospital seem so long ago, but he remembers. There were doubts and fears.
“I did have myriad emotions,” Nieto said. “Ninety percent of the time, I’m like this: happy, uptempo, having fun. But that 10 percent of the time, especially in the beginning, not being able to do what I wanted to do, there was frustration, being mad and sometimes sad. I’m still here. Waking up. Can’t get out of bed. What I would do is pray, speak to God for five to 10 minutes and let it go and I’d feel better.”
Added Stoddart, “I think being an Olympian helped Jamie cope with this, how to handle it, how to prepare, how to succeed.”
Attitude is half the battle, recovery specialists say.
Nieto has worked extensively with Skye Severns at Project Walk. The certified recovery specialist said he is moved by Nieto’s progress.
“He’s been just great,” Severns said. “He’s an Olympian who is so motivated to improve, and it’s there. He’s so positive. Says hello to everyone. He can roll over and sit up. Couldn’t do that before. He first arrived in a wheelchair and now a walker and now he’s taking all these steps. Each day, it’s a little bit more.”
Returning to the track
Nieto struggles with patience. He wants to jump up and run now.
Nieto’s motor has always revved high, accelerating accomplishments beyond athletics. He has written screenplays. He has appeared in films, including as Roberto Clemente in “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.” He played a doctor in a soap opera. Nieto is 12 chapters into his own story of recovery, talking into the recorder every day.
Stoddart will have a single released soon; her voice is soothing, Nieto says. She also has acting roles, and they are working on motivational stories.
Nieto met Stoddart in 2010 at an audition for a TV commercial. They smiled and said hello. She got the part. He jokes that he later got the girl.
Stoddart said she will take Nieto to a track this summer, to let him walk the oval and to reunite with the high jump pit. He’s ready.
“But,” he said with a smile, “I won’t do any more backflips.”
Nieto added, “It’s been a slow process to get this far. So many think, ‘Oh my gosh! You’re coming along so fast.’ I’m living it every day, so it’s slower for me.”
Nieto is emotional when discussing his support system. He didn’t have insurance, but money has come in from all corners of the globe through fundraisers, including one initiated by Olympian Lolo Jones that generated nearly $100,000.
Then there’s the woman he’ll soon meet at the end of the aisle. Even now, the tears come when he looks at her.
“Shevon’s been amazing, with me the entire way,” Nieto said. “I didn’t want to be a burden to her. She had to feed me, help me with everything. She has a life, too, but she’s always here. I don’t want her to be my crutch any more, so we can both live happy, healthy lives.”