High jumper Jamie Nieto may not yet be considered a household name on the athletics circuit but with a staggering 33 competitions in 2003, his is a name you've obviously seen. And as one of 11 jumpers to manage 2.31 (7-7) or better this season, the Sacramento, California native's name is very much expected to be in the Athens medal hunt picture next year.
Leaving his season's best to last
After a hectic year-long schedule, one that began on 11 January in Long Beach, California and ended at a competition near a beach in Tahiti exactly 10 months later, it was perhaps a surprise that Nieto saved his best for -well, almost- last, leaping to a PB 2.31 to win September's Super Meeting in Yokohama in his 32nd competition of the year. Besides a win over world champion Jacques Freitag, he left Japan with another souvenir to remember the occasion - a broken shoe.
"I kind of had low expectations for the meet at first because I'd been traveling so much," said Nieto, who turned 27 earlier this month, recalling a long trip back to California from the World Athletics Final in Monaco just a few days before crossing the Pacific to Japan.
"I just thought that my body was just going to be wrecked. But maybe I was just relaxed. Next thing you know, I jumped 2.28 with about two inches on it, and then I said, 'Wow, I'm going to jump 7-7 (2.31) today.' And on the second attempt I cleared it with ease. But my foot slipped just slightly, and my shoe tore. I was ready to keep going. I felt like I could have jumped 7-8 (2.34m) that day." Without a spare pair -"That never happened to me before" he said of his shoe mishap- he called it a day.
Prior to 2003, Nieto's best showings at the US championships were a pair of 4th place finishes, and a fourth place domestic ranking by Track & Field News. This year, he wasted little time to distinguish himself as the top American, equaling his 2.30 PB to win his first national title.
It was a blessing," he said of his first national title. "It was an awesome experience. "It started my summer season off pretty well." It also signaled the beginning of his first taste of major competition after several years of teetering on the cusp.
He didn't begin competing in athletics until his junior year at Sacramento's Valley High School. He jumped 1.93 that year, but improved quickly, clearing 2.06 as a senior, good enough to qualify for the California State High School Championships both years. Eager to pursue his jumping interests while furthering his education, he enrolled in Sacramento City Junior College. His mother, Crystal Day, who raised Nieto alone, couldn 't afford to send her son to a four-year college.
"I knew that it would give me a better opportunity to jump a little higher, and hopefully earn a full-ride scholarship, which I did." He improved to 2.14 in 1996 and 2.15 in 1997 before heading to Eastern Michigan University. He improved to 2.25 in 1998, earning his first US top-ten ranking. He ended his collegiate career in 1999 as a three-time All-American with personal best of 2.30 and a degree in business administration.
But with NCAA competition behind him, the transition to the next level would be a difficult one.
He returned to Sacramento and continued to train, but it was training, he said, without any tangible purpose. "When I came back from college, I had to find a purpose for myself to want to jump. Yes, it's an obvious purpose," he said, "but to me it felt like it didn't really count for anything anymore. I could have gone out and jumped 7-8 (2.34) and it wouldn't really matter, at that point, in 2000."
"But then as the years went on, and I kept seeing myself miss these teams, and miss opportunities to go to places that I wanted to go, I started building that hunger and that urge in my body and my mind, that this is what I want to do. And that this is the reward: making these teams and going to the World championships, and to compete in Europe, and travel to all these great places and broaden my horizons."
He only competed in ten meets in 2000, and could only manage a fifth place showing at the Olympic Trials, with a season's best of just 2.23. That autumn, he left the rain of Sacramento for the sunnier climes of Chula Vista to live and train at the ARCO Olympic Training Centre. He's lived there, more or less, ever since. The center provides Olympic caliber athletes with free room and board, state-of-the-art training facilities, and a staff of physicians and trainers. The only drawback, three roommates in close quarters, is a small price to pay, Nieto says. "It's a great support base for an athlete."
Voracious appetite for competition
And so began his voracious appetite for competition. The next year he competed in more than 20 meets, nearly 30 in 2002, and topped out at 33 this season. Of the 2.30 jumpers this year, only Stefan Holm and Yaroslav Rybakov, with 25 competitions apiece, come marginally close.
"I found a formula for myself," he said. "Athletes just have to figure out what works for them. For me, I feel like I'm getting in competitive shape, and engraining my approach in my head and running it in competition. Opening at high heights, and doing these things on a regular basis. Now I go to as many meets as possible."
US vest and Pan Am silver
After the US championships, he turned in six consecutive top three finishes in the next five weeks, including a pair of 2.30 leaps and a win in Karlstad, before the Pan-American Games where he competed in a national team uniform for the first time.
In Santo Domingo, he cleared a near-PB 2.28 to finish second behind Jamaican Jermaine Mason's 2.34 national record. "That was a good mental meet for me, because the meet before," in Stockholm, where he could only manage 2.20, "I didn't jump very well. I had a bad travel day coming from [Thessaloniki] Greece, and didn't get any rest." One drawback, perhaps, of competing in virtually every meet possible. But the silver medal augured well for his upcoming appearance at the world championships.
Paris - Mixed emotions
"After the qualifying round," in Paris, he said, "I felt really ready, and I felt like I new I was going to PR in the finals. That was my goal." But he soon learned that goals don't come easily on the sport's biggest stage. He qualified for the final with a 2.29 leap, but two days later would be a different story.
"Now I see why it's so hard," he said, laughing at the experience. "Mentally and physically it's tears down on you. On my first jump I felt great, and I said, 'Alright, this is going to be a great meet.' But then when I got to 2.25, I don't know what it was, if my adrenaline was gone or what, but mentally, I had some kind of lapse. I felt like my body was ready, but it just didn't feel like it did on the qualifying day. I cleared 2.29, but then at 2.32 I tried to muster up anything I could find in my body to jump this height, because I knew that was the height to get a medal." But he couldn't and eventually finished seventh.
He left Paris with mixed emotions, content that he reached the world championship final, but feeling that he could have done better. Now, he said, "I just look forward to the next one, and I look forward to the Olympics."
Extensive programme for 2004
He still plans a full slate of competitions in 2004, but will probably not reach his PR in "the number of competitions" category. "Obviously I have the stamina and the consistency to be able to do that, but we might taper a little bit," limiting his schedule to 25 or so competitions.
With consistency his strong suit, speed and strength is what he plans to work on most as Athens approaches. "I think anybody can get faster and stronger," he said, but quickly adding with the utmost respect, "except [Stefan] Holm. I think he's exceeding his possibilities. He's maximizing everything to it's fullest potential."
With his sights firmly on Athens, where he said a first-attempt clearance of 2.35 will be needed for gold, Nieto will keep his Paris experience in the back of his mind.
"On my last attempt, when I missed, my heart almost broke," he remembers, again smiling at the memory. "I was really sad at that point, but I just picked up my head, and felt that God was telling me, 'You've done well, you did better than you've ever done in your life, and don't worry about it. I've got better things in store for you.' "