For much of his life, Sacramento track and field star Jamie Nieto made extraordinary feats look simple. During his years of competition, the Olympic high jumper and four-time national champion routinely celebrated his accomplishments with a quick backflip.
“That was his signature thing,” said longtime manager Paul Doyle.
That move was something Nieto had completed without incident hundreds of times, Doyle noted. It was Nieto’s memorable way of saying “thank you” to fans, an exclamation point to his achievements.
Friday while coaching Olympic hopefuls at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, Nieto again demonstrated his backflip at the end of practice. But this time, something went spectacularly wrong.
“It was a freak accident; his foot slipped on the turf,” said Joe Radan, Nieto’s former coach in Sacramento and longtime mentor, who learned about the incident from Nieto’s family. “It was like diving backward into a pool, except he landed on his head.”
Nieto, 39, immediately lost movement from the neck down and had trouble breathing, said Doyle, who has spoken to people who witnessed the accident. The athlete yelled for someone to call 911.
“Actually, they got help very fast, unbelievably fast,” Doyle said. “The (paramedics) arrived and they called a helicopter that took him to the hospital.”
That quick action likely saved Nieto’s life, Doyle added. But now the high jumper faces a long road to recovery – and massive medical bills. Nieto did not have health insurance.
“The good news: He’s showing improvement,” Doyle said. “He started moving his legs (Tuesday) night. Every day is better than the day before.”
According to his agent, Nieto suffered compressed vertebrae in his neck that forced a disc forward into his spinal cord. Surgery removed the disc and fused the C3 and C4 vertebrae. Since surgery, feeling slowly is returning to his extremities.
“Nothing’s really working right now,” said Radan, who talked to Nieto by phone Tuesday night. “But he’s in good spirits. He sounds positive. (The doctors) told him it could take a year – or a lot longer – before he recovers.”
Nieto was injury free during his 20-year high-jumping career, said Doyle, who has worked with Nieto since 2002. “He had a little foot issue right before he retired in 2013, but that was it.”
One of Sacramento’s most accomplished track stars, Nieto wowed the crowd at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in his hometown, winning the high jump. A Valley High and Sacramento City College graduate, he finished fourth with a personal best of 7 feet, 8 inches at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. He also made the 2012 Olympic team and finished sixth overall at the London Games.
Hearing of his accident via social media, other Olympic athletes have rallied around Nieto, who is still in the intensive-care unit at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center.
Former world-record holder “Dwight Stones visited him at the hospital,” said Radan, who plans to visit soon.
A fundraising page has been set up through the AthleteBiz website. So far, more than $27,000 has been raised.
“I feel like someone who has helped represent Team USA in the last few Olympics, that we should be able to help him now, in his most trying time,” Olympic track star Lolo Jones said in a video plea on the website. “Please help donate to him now, so we can help him get back on his feet and he can soar to great heights again.”
Nieto lost his health insurance when his coaching contract was not renewed by USC last year, Doyle said. He had delayed getting new insurance while looking for another coaching job.
“His hospital bill is already way in excess of $100,000,” Doyle said. “He’s applying for disability and Medi-Cal, but he has all his other bills, too. He’s worried about losing his home. That’s why the fund is so important.”
Before the accident, Nieto was focusing on life after competition, Doyle said. Besides coaching other high jumpers, Nieto is a fledgling actor and has appeared in a few films and the Web series “Blood Brothers.” He also produced “Holla Atcha Boy,” a series of online interviews with other world-class athletes.
Right now, Nieto and his circle of friends are focused on his recovery.
“Jamie’s such a great guy,” Radan said. “Everybody knows Jamie, everybody loves him. He’s 39 and still in great shape, but it could be a long road ahead.”