Jessica Heims was one of two high school athletes to represent Team USA at Paralympic Games Rio 2016.
At just 17 years old, the Iowa native made the finals in both of her events, placing seventh in the women’s 400-meter T44 and eighth in the discus.
“That was very insane, and a very proud moment in my life,” said Heims, a right-leg amputee who found out she was going to Rio just two weeks before the Games were set to begin.
This summer, Heims will be one of 20 Team USA athletes participating in the inaugural 2017 World Para Athletics Junior Championships from August 3-6 in Nottwil, Switzerland. Competing in the 100 and 200 meters, as well as the discus, she will be the only U.S. athlete at the event with Paralympic Games experience under her belt.
The new championships, for athletes ages 15 to 19, have been designed to provide the first step in the development of top young international athletes toward regional and world championships, as well as the Paralympic Games. More than 380 athletes from 50 countries will compete at Nottwil’s Sports Arena, which has been the setting for numerous IPC world records, including those set by Paralympic champions Marlou van Rhijn of the Netherlands and Brent Lakatos of Canada.
“It’s incredibly helpful for the sport to have this event, which will bring in a new batch of athletes,” Heims said. “It helps grow the sport early because a lot of people don’t hear about it until they’re older.”
Since competing at the Paralympic Games, Heims has been named homecoming queen, graduated high school and was recruited to compete on the University of Northern Iowa’s track team.
She just missed the cut for Team USA at the World Para Athletics World Championships, which concluded in London last Sunday, but isn’t letting that get to her; the long-term goal is to make the international podium by the time Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 rolls around.
“I knew I wasn’t quite where I was to be able to make that team, but I knew that I could make it for this Switzerland team, which was very nice because it will be the first time in a while I’ve done a junior championships,” she said. “I’m not entirely sure what to expect from the event with it being the first one, so I just plan on doing my best.”
Heims was born with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital birth defect in which the fetus becomes entangled in amniotic bands, restricting blood flow and affecting development. Within a year, because her lower right leg and foot lacked muscle and bone, she had to have it amputated.
Heims started in track and field when she was 10, taking after her older sister. Growing up, her role model was always Olympian Steve Prefontaine, and then later turned into Paralympian Scout Bassett, who helped her get involved with Para track and field when she was 11.
But Heims’ true inspiration has come from within: her own stubbornness.
“I know my parents probably have a few stories that they’re not too proud to share,” Heims said, laughing. “I’ve always been a very stubborn person. That’s always helped me when I’m doing bad in training or have gotten in a rut. My stubbornness forces me to go through with it all, and to continue to compete and train. I’m too stubborn to let myself quit.”
So far, her stubbornness has translated well.
She made a big enough name for herself to be recruited by Northern Iowa’s Division I track and field program and competed on the biggest international stage possible as a high schooler.
“It was scary at first because I wasn’t entirely sure what the response would be from colleges,” she said. “But the coaches were very open and very excited, because you don’t see the Paralympic Movement much here in Iowa, so they were very excited to have a star come from there.”
Heims is part of a new crop of U.S. Paralympian rising stars, many of whom — most notably double-amputee Hunter Woodhall — are eager to pave a new path for Para-athletes in NCAA sports.
“That’s incredible for the sport,” Heims said. “It brings a lot of awareness media-wise into areas where the Paralympic movement isn’t as strong. Even in the Midwest, it’s been growing a lot just from athletes starring in collegiate sports.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of