Jessica Heims knew as soon as the discus left her hand that it was going to be a good throw, but she didn’t realize just how good until the measurement confirmed it: 116 feet, six inches – a new world record for the Paralympian, surpassing the record she herself had set only two weeks before.
It’s been that kind of season so far for the Northern Iowa University sophomore, a double threat in discus and sprinting. Heims notched her first world record at the Musco Twilight meet in Iowa City, Iowa, on April 13 with a throw of 105 feet, seven inches. She bettered it by three meters at the Wisconsin Alumni Meet in Madison, Wisconsin, on May 3.
“I went into the meet at a very good mental state, so I knew all of my warm-ups were where they needed to be,” Heims said. “I walked over by my teammates as they were measuring it and as soon as the 35.52 went up on the board they all ran up to me and hugged me. It was really special knowing that they were with me and were so excited for me. I don’t think I stopped smiling for the rest of the day.”
After an outdoor season marked by the two world records and helping the Panthers to a fourth-place finish at the Missouri Conference Championships, Heims charges into the next phase of the season on a high. She’ll suit up for Team USA for the first time this year at this weekend’s Desert Challenge Games in Arizona, part of the World Para Athletics Grand Prix.
It’s all part of the plan for Heims, who finished seventh in the 400-meter and eighth in discus as a 17-year-old at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. One of the few Paralympic athletes to compete in Division I athletics, Heims has never been slowed by her right leg prosthetic, the result of amniotic band syndrome, a condition where tissue, or bands, from floating parts of the amniotic sac wrap around and compromise the unborn baby’s limbs. It resulted in losing the lower part of the leg when she was a year old.
Before enrolling at UNI, Heims feared that her prosthetic would be a hindrance — not so much on the track as when it came to being accepted by her fellow student athletes and coaches. The team atmosphere at Northern Iowa quickly put her at ease.
“I've heard stories from others who have had that happen,” she said. “Fortunately, I have been incredibly blessed with a team who doesn't view my disability as a burden but rather a challenge to rise up to. The coaches immediately welcomed me and were excited to work with something they have never dealt with before. I was also worried about how my teammates would react, but they have been just as wonderful. They are so adaptive to anything that I may need changed and they are all so excited for what I can do both as a Panther and as a member of Team USA. I wouldn't be where I am now if I didn't have my coaches and teammates here supporting me.”
Competing in the NCAA has helped Heims grow into a more mature athlete, something she hopes to showcase at the Desert Challenge.
“(At UNI), I am constantly surrounded by athletes that are very serious about their training, so it rubs off on me a lot,” she said, noting that the steadiness of NCAA training has helped push her to a higher plane in her sport. “It motivates me to work hard in and out of practice and reorient myself to perform to the best of my level.”
Resiliency has played a factor as well.
“It's a much kinder way of saying that I can be quite stubborn,” she said. “I'm quite determined in athletic aspects and try my best to overcome what's faced in front of me.”
Even balancing morning sessions on the track or throwing with cross-training and lifting workouts with courses in physics and pre-grad school observation hours hasn’t affected her commitment to her sport, or her goals, which include a career in physical therapy and rehabilitation. Long-term, the 20-year-old has mapped out a plan for where she’d like to be as an athlete as well — and it starts this weekend.
“I'm ready to get back into a competition,” she said. “In the next two seasons I want to continue my growth curve with time, distances and strength. As long as I continue getting stronger, I will be able to improve and compete more with Team USA. I'll stay focused on one meet at a time and see where life takes me from there.”