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Journey to Tokyo: Paralympic Medal Contender Balancing Pandemic, Training and Graduation Receives Surprise Gift

Japan 2020

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The Tokyo Paralympics are less than six months away. Lately, COVID-19 has been the only competitor able to hold Jessica Heims off the medal stand.

“That’s kept me very hungry for more than the last year and a half,” Heims said.

In 2019, she became the world record holder in the F64 discus, but Heims, an Iowa native from Swisher, felt her gold medal hopes fade when the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics were delayed. “It was really heartbreaking to go through that process. The entire world was on pins and needles trying to figure out what to do,” said Heims.

At just 11 months old, Heims’ leg had to be amputated because of amniotic band syndrome which caused her lower right leg and foot to lack muscle and bone. Heims’ ability to first overcome that adversity has been inspirational alone. “I hope I can use that to help lift up anyone who is struggling,” said Heims.

The pandemic changed the University of Northern Iowa senior student-athlete’s life in many ways and relocated the world class athlete to training in her parents’ garage. “We had a ton of friends donate random equipment and random dumbbells and we are so grateful for that,” Heims said.

As the Paralympics drew closer, Heims grew worried about the distance the Tokyo games would draw between her and her parents. Heims said, “They knew having my family was everything to me and having them there to support me is the greatest gift possible.”

A local community donor sent a surprise gift for Christmas Day. It was money to cover her parents’ trip to Tokyo. “There was not a dry eye in the room when they found out. They were so grateful and we are just so blessed to have that support,” Heims said.

The pandemic has caused a roller coaster ride of a lifetime for Heims. On March 12, 2020 the Missouri Valley Conference canceled the outdoor track season. On March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics and Olympics were postponed. On Aug. 17, Heims began her senior year at UNI.  Later in 2021, Heims will graduate with a degree in biology on May 8. The Team USA Paralympic trials begin June 17, just two months before the Tokyo Paralympics on Aug. 24. “It’s my last year as a college athlete and going into the games there are so many things all bundled up at once. Honestly, for me I feel they are all working together in a good way,” said Heims.

Heims recently became the first female leg amputee to ever receive a Division 1 full athletic scholarship in track and field.

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