The Resilience of Jamie Nieto

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 21, 2021 # Lifestyle

For many years after the onset of my own injury, I thought resilience – the kind of intestinal toughness that can get us through the hardest obstacles of life – was largely genetic in origin. Just like a receding hairline or your height, you either have it or you don’t. In the last couple of years, a lot of experts have tried to convince me otherwise and they’ve largely succeeded. For instance, Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska and author of “The Vanishing American Adult,” concluded that resilience often comes from “scar tissue.” Not actual scars, of course, but the kind of emotional scarring that results from taking risks and often ending up on your behind. Once you’ve been kicked around a time or two, you realize you have the right stuff to handle adversity and the confidence and determination to try again. You are battle-tested, and when the next battle comes along, you are ready.

I want to introduce you to a man who is the personification of the power of resilience. His name is Jamie Nieto, and he is this year’s recipient of the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, given annually at Media Access Awards, a celebration of disability in film and TV. Christopher Reeve himself created this annual cash scholarship soon after his own injury, and the Reeve Foundation has continued the tradition. Re-entering the world as a disabled actor, Mr. Reeve immediately saw how hard it was for disabled actors, or any disabled person, to make it in the entertainment business. You can count the movie/TV stars who are disabled on the one hand and have a finger or two leftover. Working disabled actors have a mountain to climb just to get a one-shot guest role on “Blue Bloods.” Promising ones who are willing to keep at it need all the help they can get.

Jamie high jumpingHere’s Jamie’s story, truncated to blog size. He began track and field at age twelve and developed a passion for high jumping. By the time he graduated college at Eastern Michigan University, he was a three-time All-American high jumper and heading for the Olympics. He made the American Olympic high jumping team and competed in the 2004 games in Athens, finishing 4th, and then again in the 2012 games in London, finishing 5th only because three other jumpers tied for second. His personal best was an astonishing 7’8”. You get the idea – this guy was a serious, world-class athlete.

So, one day in 2016, after a rigorous practice session, Jamie did what he did after every such workout. He did a standing backflip. This time his foot slipped, and he landed on his head. He severely damaged his spinal cord at the C-3/C-4 level and was told he was paralyzed for life.

Jamie standing with a walkerTo hear Jamie, tell the story, he says he couldn’t accept the fact that much of his body was now useless. God, he believed, had other plans for him. He set a goal, as most highly-resilient people do: he was going to walk down the aisle at his own wedding in mid-2017. His beautiful bride, Shevon, also an Olympic-level runner, would help hold him up. Jamie switched training regimens, from high jumping halfway to the sky to struggling to take enough wobbly baby steps to go 100 feet down an aisle.

Months and months and a thousand rehab sessions later, he did it. He estimates it took over 200 mini-steps (and his bride’s shoulder) to get the job done. At the same time, he turned another page of his life and set out for a new bar to jump over -- acting. He had toyed with this dream before the fatal backflip and simply doubled down in a wheelchair. It took a while, of course, but Jamie had patience, energy, and will, three other building blocks of resilience. Last year, he landed a part on the short-lived Netflix series “Away,” starring Hillary Swank. He had turned the corner and was on his way.

Who wouldn’t be crushed if they were a world-class athlete and broke their back one Tuesday? Jamie Jamie and Shevonwas too young to throw in the towel but old enough to know that a tragedy, even a paralytic tragedy, can often point you in a new direction. No doubt Jamie has had many torturous moments over the last five years and still uses a wheelchair much of the time. Baby-stepping down that aisle was one hurdle on the way to bigger ones. You can’t high jump seven and a half plus feet unless you really, really work at it. Is obsession part of resilience? I don’t know the difference between obsession and laser focus, but either can surely get you out of bed in the morning.

The Media Access Awards will be streaming on Wednesday, November 17, at 6:00 PM West Coast time.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.