Jessica Heims

UNI sophomore Jessica Heims competes during a meet earlier this season. The Paralympic sprinter and discus thrower will be making her Drake Relays debut in the discus Friday after recently setting a world record in the event.

CEDAR FALLS — University of Northern Iowa sophomore Jessica Heims is a track and field athlete who has traveled to nine countries for training and competition. She’s held her own on the international stage, including top eight finishes in two events at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

On Friday, Heims will cross another goal off her list when she enters the discus ring for her first Drake Relays. The former Cedar Rapids Prairie track and field competitor grew up like so many Iowa youths dreaming of the opportunity to compete at Drake.

Heims has seen some of her Paralympic friends compete in various events at “American’s Athletic Classic” over the years, and now she’s ready for her turn.

“There’s such a cool energy in that stadium,” Heims said. “There’s so many people, and they’re all together sharing the same passion for the sport. I think being down on the field and competing there, I’ll definitely feel the energy as a competitor and that will fuel the adrenaline for competition.”

Heims isn’t far removed from a burst of adrenaline in the discus ring. She set a world record at the University of Iowa Musco Twilight on April 13 within the F64 classification (athletes with below knee limb deficiency competing with a prosthesis).

Heims’ record mark of 32.19 meters (105 feet, 7 inches) surpassed the previous world best of 32.12. Her personal record for the classification was right at 32.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Heims’ record performance is that it came in her first competition since undergoing an appendectomy. She only trained for a couple weeks leading into the meet.

“I didn’t know that she was ready to hit the positions she did when she threw that,” UNI throws coach Dan O’Mara said. “She was six weeks behind in her training.”

Added Heims, “It took us all by surprise, but it was a good start to the season for sure.”

Not much has stopped Heims’ thirst for competition throughout her life.

Despite being born with amniotic band syndrome — losing her leg below the right knee at 12 months — Heims has always lived an active lifestyle complemented by a love of music. She could spend entire mornings playing piano and grew up participating in youth team sports like basketball, soccer and t-ball. Heims eventually was introduced to running as a family activity at age 10.

When Heims’ older sister, Beth, started middle school cross country, her mom, Kris, didn’t like the idea of her eldest daughter training alone on the streets. Jessica, her dad, Glen, and younger sister, Nicole, completed the family of five runners.

“We’re that family that goes to 5Ks and runs together,” Heims said. “It was a really good bonding experience for all of us. We could enjoy those races. Even if we weren’t competitive in them, we could enjoy the process of it and we could train together.”

Drawn to the individual accountability that track and field offers, Heims’ first exposure to any adaptive competition came at age 12 in Oklahoma.

“I had that different connection with athletes that I never had before,” Heims recalls. “That grew with me as I got older and competed at higher levels at adaptive meets.

“It’s absolutely amazing. I’ve met some of my best friends in the world through that competition. You only see them a few times a year, but having that thing in common with them is so different than anything else you can find. It’s very unique experiences you go through.”

Those experiences for Heims included a childhood with multiple trips a year to the Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis to refit or replace a prosthesis. She currently has three different prosthetic legs for training and one that is used for running and another for throwing.

“Every time I got a prosthetic, it would be something new and different,” Heims said. “Going from regular walking legs to running legs is a whole different ballpark. It definitely took a few years of learning how to move my body with it and learning how to fine tune those legs to what I need.

“The technology is still in its early years, but it has come a long way and that has really helped the process.”

Solon throws coach Brad Wymer and Bill Calloway, a former track and field coach at Cedar Rapids Jefferson, helped train Heims as a youth athlete in the throwing and running events.

After qualifying through regional meets and meeting national standards, Heims made her first U.S. Paralympic track and field team at age 16 and began competing against adults on the professional circuit. At age 17, she finished seventh in the 400-meter dash and eighth in the discus at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

When it came time to decide on a college, Heims was initially searching for a Division III program that would be willing to work with an adaptive athlete. Her friends talked her into visiting UNI.

“I stepped on campus and I adored it,” Heims said. “It had that feeling of community and family. It felt small for a DI college so I had all these opportunities that a DI college would provide, but it felt comfortable enough like home.”

Well aware of Heims’ previous success, O’Mara, sprints coach Diavonte Smith and head coach Dave Paulsen are thrilled to have a world-class athlete join their program.

“It was going to be a challenge and I was up for a challenge,” O’Mara said of Heims’ addition.

Building off the strong base Wymer has set, O’Mara has worked to refine Heims’ technique. He credits her quickness through the circle as another key to success.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” said O’Mara, who is working toward a goal of helping Heims medal in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. “It’s an honor to work with her. She’s a very good athlete and her personality is awesome.

“She listens. She’s able to change things that I tell her to change. That’s rare with anybody. Whenever I tell her a position to hit, she’ll hit it and she’ll work on it over and over until she gets it down right.”

Heims has a pair of trips on her agenda this fall, competing with the U.S. team at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru, Aug. 23-Sept. 1 and the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai Nov. 7-15.

After college, the UNI sophomore says she would like to pursue track professionally. The biology major wants to one day work in medicine and rehabilitation.

“I want to use my experiences and passion for what I’ve gone through to help other people,” Heims said.

O’Mara’s first adaptive athlete has already made an impact in just two seasons of track at UNI.

“She supports everybody, everybody supports her,” O’Mara said. “She’s a great example and role model of how to train and how hard to work.

“She just wants to get better. If you’re having a bad day and Jessica is here, it’s like, ‘OK, you’re really not having a bad day.’ … You can’t come to practice and have a bad attitude when Jess is in there killing it.’”

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