April 26, 2016
During his illustrious career, two-time U.S. high jump Olympian Jamie Nieto, who won three U.S. outdoor and one indoor national titles and achieved a personal best of 7’8″ (2.34m) to take 4th at the 2004 Olympics before retiring and becoming a coach in 2013, always finished his competitions by waving to the crowd and performing a back flip or a back handspring. Last Friday afternoon after wrapping up practice with his group of post-collegiate jumpers at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., the 39-year-old Nieto attempted a back flip but failed to bring his entire body around and landed on his head.
Nieto suffered a severe spinal injury and was paralyzed immediately. Struggling to breathe, he was quickly airlifted by helicopter to the Los Angeles County+University of Southern California Medical Center’s NeuroTrauma Center. During the helicopter ride, Nieto’s breathing was so labored that he had to be hooked up to a ventilator.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital, Nieto regained some feeling in his hands and feet, though he could not move any of his limbs, and underwent an MRI. The MRI showed no breakage of the spine and no cuts in the spinal cord but did reveal that the C3 and C4 vertebrae had been compressed and the disc between them had been forced forward into the spinal cord. That evening, he underwent surgery to remove the disk and fuse his spine together at the C3-C4 vertebrae. The surgery was successful.
Since then, Nieto has been making slow, steady progress. He can breathe more comfortably (he is no longer on the ventilator), and though he is very tired, he can talk and communicate without issue and swallow liquids and soft foods. As of Tuesday morning, he was able to shrug his shoulders and move his forearm, but he cannot move his upper arm or his fingers. He has feeling in his lower body and can recruit and fire the muscles, but for the most part he cannot move his lower body (he has been able to squeeze his legs together).
“The outlook remains positive that Jamie can still make a full recovery,” said Nieto’s girlfriend, Shevon Stoddart, herself a two-time Olympic hurdler for Jamaica. “He is working hard to get back, approaching these movements like you’d expect an athlete would doing reps in the weight room.”
“We all remain very hopeful that he’ll be able to fully recover,” Nieto’s agent Paul Doyle said. “It is a little bit early to say and what the timeline looks like is impossible to say. Everything has gotten better over time since [the] surgery…Things are definitely improving, it’s just we’re not sure the rate at which he will improve and to what extent will he get fully recovered.”
Aside from the obvious physical effects, one of the side effects of the accident is that Nieto, who also works as an actor and producer, is now facing massive medical bills. Nieto, who worked as a coach at USC until last year (he is not employed by Azusa Pacific but he and his athletes use its facilities) did not have medical insurance at the time of the accident. Though he has now applied for insurance through Medi-Cal (a low-cost health coverage program for people with limited resources) and filed for disability, Doyle said the disability process will likely take at least a month. In the meantime, Doyle estimated that between the cost of the helicopter and the treatment he’s received at USC, Nieto is already facing medical bills in the six figures, and that’s not even including mortgage payments, living expenses, etc.
With that in mind, Doyle, AthleteBiz and hurdler Lolo Jones teamed up to begin a fundraising campaign for Nieto. As of Tuesday afternoon, the campaign has raised over $9,000, with athletes such as Lauren Fleshman, Curtis Beach and Khadevis Robinson all having donated so far. AthleteBiz engineered the fundraiser so that 99 to 100% of the funds raised go directly to Nieto (as opposed to other crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe that take a percentage of the donations for themselves).
“I can’t imagine a nicer person to be honest,” Doyle said. “You think of Ashton Eaton times two. This kid is the most humble and nicest person you’ll ever meet. He’ll go out of his way to help anybody…He’s just, more than anything, a great friend to anybody he’s ever met.”