Jessica Heims competing in the women's discus throw F64 final at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 28, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Jessica Heims laughed as she recalled the mean comments she heard as a kid.
When Heims started competing with a prosthetic leg made specifically to help amputees run, people often approached her mother with something nasty to say. They accused the young runner of “cheating” and expressed their displeasure that she was allowed to race.
That’s no longer the sentiment when Heims, now a sprinter and discus thrower at the University of Northern Iowa, arrives at a track meet. Opposing coaches and fellow runners are glad to see her.
They even root for Heims, a junior who was recently offered an athletic scholarship from Northern Iowa and is now the first female leg amputee to receive a Division I track and field scholarship.
“Once I got to college, I actually found more support than negativity,” Heims said. “And a lot of other coaches and teams have been aware of my accomplishments, and they’ve been following my Paralympic season. It’s actually cool that they’re really excited to see me at meets.”
Heims was born with amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition that compromises a baby’s limbs. She had her left leg amputated below the knee when she was 12 months old.
She has always run with a prosthetic leg. It has become second nature for the 20-year-old who is pre-med and majoring in biology. Along the way, she has proven herself at the collegiate level and on the international stage.
Heims earned a pair of top-10 finishes at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, taking seventh in the 400-meter and eighth in discus. Over the past few months, she has broken her own world record in discus.
“(Using a prosthetic leg) is something I just kind of grew up with that was a part of me, but it didn’t really seem to affect me too much,” Heims said. “My family did a good job of making it not the focal point of my life."
Heims set a world record with a mark of 35.52 at the Wisconsin Alumni Meet on May 3, however, the meet in Wisconsin was not approved as a World Para Athletics event, so the mark wasn’t recognized as a world record at the time.
A few months later, in late August, she won the gold medal at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 with a throw of 34.40, a mark which stood as the official world record until her 35.52 mark from the Wisconsin event was added to the global rankings.
“After a while, it was kind of in my brain. I was like, ‘All right, it’s not that much of a surprise,’” Heims said of shattering her own records. “I knew I could do this. I just needed to fully believe that I was physically capable of it.”
Heims said one of her track and field coaches encourages her to write her goals on sticky notes that she places around her home as a constant reminder. For some time, she had 35 meters written on two sticky notes — one she kept on her bathroom mirror and another she had on a bedroom mirror.
Heims said she wrote 35 meters on the sticky notes because she wanted that to be the new world record in discus. She saw the number every day when she looked at her mirrors, so it didn’t shock her when she eventually made it a reality and set it as a world record.
“I used to think I was a better runner,” Heims said. “But I think my heart and my body are kind of leaning towards throwing now.”
Heims started running at age 10 to be like her older sister, Beth, who had taken up the sport. Two years later, Heims’ family got her a prosthetic leg made specifically for running.
All of a sudden, Heims could run without experiencing pain in her left leg. She also found herself beating other runners for the first time.
“That running prosthetic helped level the playing field a little bit and helped me kind of unlock a little potential that I naturally would have had already,” Heims said. “So it was really freeing having that prosthetic.”
Still, Heims said she didn’t think she’d get an opportunity to compete in college. She didn’t know of other amputees who were running collegiately, but she decided midway through high school that she wanted to pursue it anyway.
Heims spoke to several college coaches. She got more excited during the recruiting process once she learned she could run alongside able-bodied athletes.
Heims said she decided to sign with Northern Iowa because the coaches saw her “as a person first” and not “as an adapted athlete … (or as) a tool to help them build a program.” She said she realizes the significance of her receiving a Division I track and field scholarship as an amputee.
“It’s really exciting just breaking that barrier, especially since I wasn’t aware that this would be a possibility at all,” Heims said, adding that “people coming up after me will know that it is a possibility and that they can strive for (it).”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.