Jessica Heims lost her lower right leg and foot before the age of 1, but through the years Heims, now a University of Northern Iowa freshman, has taken up that challenge to her mobility and run with it.
Heims was diagnosed with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a random congenital birth defect in which the fetus becomes entangled in fibrous amniotic bands in the womb, restricting blood flow and affecting the baby’s development. In addition to the birth defect affecting her leg, she wasn’t breathing at birth and her APGAR score, an assessment of how well a baby is doing at birth and whether the baby is in need of medical assistance, was 1.
The Heims family is very active, and soon after her amputation she was fitted with her first prosthetic leg and was walking two weeks later.
That prosthesis was her first of some 25. The family made up to a dozen trips per year to the Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis for refitting or replacing the prosthesis.
As she grew older, the need for “new legs” became less frequent, and Heims became involved in youth athletics such as T-ball, soccer and basketball. She participated in track and field at age 10.
Heims stayed involved in track and field at middle school at Cedar Rapids Prairie and then on into high school where she became a USA Para Athletes team member. She was one of two high school athletes to represent Team USA at Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and finished seventh in the T44 400 meters and eighth in the discus.
Bill Calloway, recently retired long-time girls track and field coach at Cedar Rapids Jefferson, is Heims’ running event coach. Long-time high school throws expert, Brad Wymer, works with her on the discus. She does strength, swimming and cycling for cross-training, as well as running and throwing. During a typical week, she trains three to five days in the off-season and four to six days in season.
“Jess is one of the very few athletes to compete at the Paralympics to be a finalist in throwing as well as running,” Calloway said.
He added that Heims has proven to be a good teammate and spokesperson for the Paralympic program.
“She spoke at our largest Rotary Club in Cedar Rapids and received a standing ovation, and I have been told that is something seldom done,” Calloway said. “Occasionally we as coaches may get the chance to work with that special athlete and Jess has been that athlete for me.”
Heims is a four time U.S. Paralympics Track and Field High School All American, and was recently named the 2017 U.S. Paralympics High School Female Field Athlete of the Year. She collected the gold medal after throwing 27.47 meters (90 feet 1 inch) in women’s discus and took home a bronze on the track in the women’s T44 200 at the World Para Athletics Junior Championships in Nottwil, Switzerland.
She just missed the cut for Team USA at the World Para Athletics World Championships in London in August, 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.
“Being a part of para athletics has done so much for me even past just competition. I have been able to meet many different cultures around the world and befriend so many people. Competition has given me a greater drive in school and in life in general,” Heims said. “I feel God’s call in my life towards athletics so I can travel the world and experience life in ways that I would never be able to understand back home. Sport unifies all the diversity in the world while allowing us all to enjoy and accept the differences.”