To achieve an Olympic dream

Jessica Heims’ first track race should have been a miserable experience.

It was a Fourth of July 5K in Williamsburg. It was cold. It was rainy. The chalk marking the race route washed off in the rain, causing Heims to almost get lost. It was a day sure to fell the passions of even the staunchest runner.

University of Northern Iowa track athlete Jessica Heims.
UNI sophomore Jessica Heims takes off.

Or so thought Heims’ mother, Kris, who was certain the ordeal would ruin the concept of track for the rest of her 10-year-old daughter’s life.

“The entire race I was sad at the miserable weather because I figured she’d never want to run another 5K again,” Kris said. “When we crossed the finish line, I looked down, expecting her to tell me it was the worst experience ever. But she looked up at me with a big smile and said, ‘When can we do this again?’”

It was a moment that Heims, now a University of Northern Iowa sophomore, said “flickered the crazy in me.” That bit of crazy eventually pushed Heims into greater and greater echelons of competition, fueling the slow growth of the grandest of athletic dreams: Olympic dreams.

Heims’ passion for running is instantly clear. You see it in her smile. You hear it in her laugh. It’s an enthusiasm that belies the fact that she’s missing something fundamental to the act of running itself: Heims doesn’t have a right foot.

When she was one year old, Heims’ parents made the difficult decision to amputate that foot. While in the womb, strands of the amniotic sac ensnared the right side of her body, restricting the growth of her right leg. It’s a rare condition known as amniotic banding.

At birth, the leg was severely underdeveloped. It was missing bones, and it hampered Heims’ mobility. After a year of failed treatments, her leg was amputated at the mid-calf.

“It was honestly the best thing my parents could have done for me,” Heims said.

The beginning of a journey

The decision meant Heims could start using prosthetics, which gave her a newfound freedom of movement and allowed her to discover her passion for running.

After some initial struggles running with her walking prosthetic – which she described as, “like running with a hiking boot that’s a size 14 when you’re a size six” – Heims started using increasingly advanced, carbon-fiber running blades.

When she was 12, she was introduced to the Paralympics, the Olympic equivalent for athletes with a range of disabilities. Heims loved watching the Olympics as a child and always felt a swell of pride cheering on Team USA. That planted the seed for her goal of competing in the games, but the dream lay dormant for several years.

“It was something I always wanted to pursue, but I wasn’t sure how to get there or what it would look like when it did,” Heims said. “I thought about being there just like any other kid would, but it took many years for me to realize that I could actually make that a possibility.”

Four years later, Heims competed in the USA Track and Field National Championship. At 16, she was among the youngest to compete in the adult circuit. Consequently, she was, in her words, “smoked by everyone.”

Undeterred, she returned to the national stage the next year around the Fourth of July - that fateful holiday that launched her passion for the sport six years prior - to pursue her Paralympic dreams.

Heims competed in the 400 meters and the discus in the Paralympic Trails in Charlotte, North Carolina. Then she went home, her place on the Paralympic Team uncertain.

Later, during the first days of her senior year of high school, she got word. She made the team. Her dream was coming true.

Living the dream

In less than two weeks, she was flying to Rio de Janeiro, where she would compete in Olympic Stadium just two weeks after the 2016 Olympics. She would run on the same track as the greatest athletes in the world. She even raced in the same lane as Usian Bolt, the famed Jamaican sprinter widely considered the greatest of all time.

It was a surreal experience from the start. After spending years as a girl watching the Opening Ceremonies, Heims was actually there.

“Just being there and seeing the Olympic Torch light up – it’s something I’d dreamt about,” Heims said. “Slowly over the years, it was something I thought would happen as I started to pursue it. But actually being there, I was a little bit shell-shocked. I felt like I should be turning off my TV after it and going to bed.”

Later, she competed in the 46,831-seat Olympic Stadium.

“Everyone’s loud and screaming; it’s just like a movie,” Heims said. “It would have been overwhelming, but I was so in the zone, I thought I was meant to be there. But, afterwards, I got to freak out.”

Heims made the final in both the 400 meters and the discus, setting personal bests in both. It was an experience that Heims said, “meant the world to me.”

“I was so blessed to have the opportunity to get there in the first place,” Heims said. “In a way it humbled me, which is ironic because I feel like it shouldn’t have. It wasn’t just because of me. It let me look back at how my family and coaches and teammates had brought me there. It wasn’t just me on my own, everyone else was holding me up to get there.”

The next step

After the games, her next milestone was selecting a college. She was set on a smaller, Division III school, but she visited the UNI campus after hearing her friends rave about the school.

“I stepped on campus and I adored it,” Heims said. “I couldn’t help it. I could see myself going there.”

The decision to attend UNI clicked when she met her coaches, Head Coach Dave Paulsen and Event Coach Dan O’Mara.

“They looked at me as an individual and an athlete,” Heims said. “They were excited about the challenges I could bring.”

With the support of her coaches, family and teammates, Heims has continued her success at UNI. She was recently named to the US Paralympics 2019 National Team and will likely compete in the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai this November.

“Having a good team changes everything,” Heims said. “It would be so easy at times to stop if I didn’t have that support, but they’ve been with me every step of the way. That really keeps me going.”