By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
SWISHER — When she was in the fourth grade, Jessica Heims dressed as an Olympic athlete for Halloween. Around her neck she wore a costume medal, on the front of which she had etched the word “gold.”
This September, Heims, now 17, is in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Paralympic Games, where she’s competing for the chance for real gold in both the women’s discus and 400-meter dash competitions.
Heims, a senior at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School, is one of only two high school athletes to make the U.S. women’s track and field Paralympic team.
She and her family live in Swisher and are members of St. Ludmila Parish in Cedar Rapids.
When she was born, Heims was diagnosed with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a birth defect in which fibrous bands in the womb get wrapped around some part of the baby’s body (arm, leg, hand, etc.), restricting blood flow and impacting development. As a result of the condition, Heims was born with an underdeveloped lower right leg and foot, which were amputated when she was still an infant.
Despite the challenges she faced, Heims never let the condition keep her down. She started running with a prosthetic leg when she was 10 years old and got her first running blade when she was 11. She became active in the Cedar Rapids Track Club and went out for track and field when she was in middle school and high school.
In 2013, Heims participated in the Junior World Paralympic Games where she won a gold medal for her age category in the triathlon in a grueling competition that included swimming, running and bicycling. She also won a silver medal and two bronze medals at those games.
A year later, Heims began competing at the national level in adult track and field. In 2015, she took part in the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in the Middle-Eastern city of Doha, Qatar, and got fifth place in both of the events she will be participating in at Rio this year.
Heims competed in the trials for the 2016 Paralympics this July, but initially thought she had missed the cut. It wasn’t until Aug. 24 that Heims found out the U.S. women’s track and field team would have three additional spots available and that her time in the 400-meter dash and her distance in the discus qualified her for Rio.
She said she was surprised and overwhelmed with emotion when she found out she had made the team. “My mom got the call from the Olympic Committee and then she and Dad came to school and pulled me and my sister out of class to tell us the news,” Heims told The Witness shortly before she left for Brazil. “We were all overjoyed and started hugging each other and were crying.”
Heims said she is grateful to have the privilege of representing her country at this year’s Paralympic Games. “I am able to live a life this great because of this country, and it is an amazing feeling to put on the Stars and Stripes in front of thousands of people watching the competition,” she said. “It is truly an honor to be in this position.”
Heims arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Sept 5. She is staying in the Olympic Village and will be using all the same facilities as the Olympic athletes who were there in August. Heims’ mother, Kris, said her daughter was “excited to be running on the same track as Usain Bolt,” the Jamaican sprinter, considered the fastest man in the world and one of Heims’ favorite athletes.
Like Bolt, who’s seen making the sign of the cross before he races, Heims said that prayer is also an important part of her pre-race routine.
“Before I race or compete, I usually like to take a small moment to calm myself down and say a little prayer of thanks to God for the amazing opportunities he has given to me,” she said. “It is humbling to know that he has guided me through this process so far and is always watching over me. Praying before a race allows me to think of the bigger picture in life and be thankful for everything God has given me.”
Heims will compete in the discus competition the morning of Sept. 11 and will run in the 400 on Sept. 12.
Her parents, Glen and Kris, will be there in Rio to cheer her on, as will her older sister, Beth, a senior at Coe College, and her younger sister, Nicole, who is a junior at Prairie High School. Grandparents Gene and Betty Vaske, parishioners of St. Mary Parish in Manchester, will also be making the trip. Her other two grandparents, Delbert and Mary Heims, also of St. Mary’s in Manchester, will be cheering their granddaughter on from Iowa.
Kris Heims said that she and her husband are “very excited” and are “very proud” of their daughter Jessica for making it to the Paralympic Games. “Jessica is determined. She’s got a great work ethic, and it’s great to see her getting this opportunity at such a young age,” her mother said.
“She’s proof dreams can come true,” she continued. “Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. As a parent, it’s so great to see when your child’s dreams do come true. In this case it especially means a lot since she’s had so many challenges to overcome.”
Next fall Heims will attend the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls where she plans to major in biology and will don purple and gold as a member of the Panther’s track and field team.
On Memorial Day 2016 in downtown Cedar Rapids Jessica Heims wears the uniform she wore at the IPC World Championships in Doha, Qatar, in 2015. She will be getting a new blue uniform for the Paralympics (Contributed photo)