Friday, June 14, 2013

From the Advocate Messenger: Two-time Olympic high jumper Nieto glad to return to Centre camp

Jamie Nieto is a two-time Olympian who says he is not really an overall sports fan — “I never really watch sports on TV,” he said.

However, he is a fan of promoting track and field with youngsters, and that’s why the talented high jumper is back in Danville for the second time in three years working at the Maximum Velocity Track & Field Academy at Centre College that started Wednesday night.

Nieto, 36, just missed earning a medal at the 2004 and 2012 Olympics. He is a three-tme U.S. outdoor champion (2003, 2004, 2012) and was also the 2004 U.S. indoor champion.

He cleared a personal best 7 feet, 8 inches at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Nieto, one of several former Olympians on the camp staff at Centre, took time to discuss a variety of subjects before the start of the camp, which has 110 participants from 12 states this year:

Question: What made you decide to return to this camp after missing last year because it was so close to the U.S. Olympic Trials?
Nieto: “It is just a great camp. I had a lot of fun the first year they had it. The kids were great. It was great experience not just for me, but the kids. It gave me a great environment to give back to the youth of America and this area. That’s why.
“I enjoy giving back and teaching. The facilities are great and the staff is awesome. You want to be around good people, so it is good to come back again. I wish I could have come last year, but it was too close to the Olympic Trials and I was really focused on that.
“I always enjoy having fun with the kids and teaching them. I think when you are learning, you should be having fun. I always go out there to make as fun as possible and make it a great environment. They can take things back home and progress on their own.”

Question: What was your Olympic experience like, and will you always wonder “what if” because you came so close to earning a medal?
Nieto: “That is the second time that has happened to me. In 2004 I made the Olympic team and I got really close and was fourth. Second, third and fourth, we all jumped the same height, but they jumped it on their first attempt and me on second attempt, so I got fourth. I was a lot younger athlete, but making the Olympic team is an amazing experience, especially for me last year at 35 years old to be the oldest American high jumper to ever make an Olympic team.
“In 2004 after I got fourth and jumped a PB (personal best), it was bittersweet for me. I didn’t know how to handle it. On one hand, I made it to the zenith of my track career. On the other hand, I didn’t a medal. I had this goal to make the Olympic team but also get a medal. When I didn’t do it, it was bittersweet.
“Then I had some up-and-down years, and it really taught me how to go out and do the best you can do and be happy with that. The whole time I was thinking I had lost when really I won. It’s just a perspective. It’s like, ‘You got fourth place in the Olympic Games in 2004 and just missed out on a medal, but you still jumped the best you ever have in your life. That’s a win.’
“When I finally started to understand that and take that away from the Olympic experience, coming into the Games in 2012 it was the same thing. One reporter said I was probably the happiest person not to have won a medal and wanted to know why. I was like, ‘I made it again. I accomplished this amazing goal to get here again, and I jumped my second-best jump that year.’ It was the best I could do that day. So to me, I won whether I got a medial or not.”

Question: What has been the secret to your longevity, which allowed you to make the 2004 Olympic team and yet just miss a medal eight years later as well?
Nieto: “Just a positive attitude, God and belief in myself. Knowing I did have this talent and could do this again. In 2008, I just missed out on making the team and that was tough for me. They started a new rule that you had to have the Olympic (qualifying) standard (7-6 1/2) by the trials that year — the first year ever to do that — and also place in the top three. I took second (at the trials) and then later jumped the A standard. That really hurt me. I finished out the season but it was tough.
“Then in 2009 I got a new coach and tried something different, and that brought me along for a while. In 2010, I was, like, not knowing if I really wanted to do this or not any more. I would wake up and was not sure if I wanted to go to the track again. But one of the reasons I would want to make the Olympic team again would be to meet President Obama in 2012. Whoever makes the team gets to meet the president. So that became a goal of mine to make the team and meet Obama.
“So in 2010 I talked to my coach and wondered if I wanted to train. He gave me a good pep talk. I don’t know if I needed a lot of encouragement, but I needed something that day and he told me I still had it in me to make team and get a medal. I got excited again and got refocused again. I got back into what I needed to do.
“In 2011, things started coming together again. Right before nationals that year, I dropped weight fast and lost strength because I didn’t realize I dropped weight too fast. I did not do as well as expected at trials. The next year I was like, ‘I have to have a better diet. I have to have consistent weight all year.’ I did that, stuck to my goals of getting better and kept my weight down and got fast.

“I had the mindset that every meet I went to, I wanted to jump at the A standard, and that’s what I did. I probably went to about 13 meets before the trials and every one, or maybe two, I jumped 7-7 (7 feet, 7 inches). I hadn’t jumped 7-7 since 2004. I jumped 7-6 1/2 in 2008, but I had not jumped 7-7.
“It was kind of shedding my fear again to where I could do this. It started building my confidence again, and then two weeks before the Olympic Trials I jumped the A standard and someone told me it was a record for my age group. I don’t know that. Then I went to trials and it rains, and I know I can jump in the rain. I was happy because lot of high jumpers don’t like rain. I won, and it was an amazing, humbling experience. I broke down and cried. I was crying on my victory lap. It was such an amazing experience.”

Question: How did you go from a high school basketball and football player to suddenly trying track and field as a junior?
Nieto: “In high school, I was playing basketball and really loved basketball and had a passion. I went to junior college and went out for the team. I worked hard. I was out there hustling. I remember training hard. Go through tryouts, and track coach was there at every tryout.
“I was playing good ball, too. My jumper was not the best. I was as tall as I am now but I didn’t have the best post moves. I could jump over people, I was a hustler and I was good on defense. I passed the cuts, no problem. Second week, no problem. I am swatting people, dunking on people. It’s crazy.
“Third week they bring in the returning players and guys they had recruited. I might have slowed down a little bit, but not much. But I got cut. I was upset. I had never worked so hard for something in my life and not achieved what I wanted to achieve.
“I went and talked to the coach and his excuse for why he cut me did not seem logical. He was saying I was in between positions and was tall enough for a big man, but my post moves were not good enough and agile and quick but jumper not good. I thought could work on and fix jumper. I cried. I was heartbroken knowing I would never play basketball again.
“Come to find out — and that was like 1996 — I make the Olympic team in 2004 and my junior college track coach who came to all those tryouts called me to congratulate me and said, ‘Now aren’t you glad I told the basketball coach not to let you on the team?’ I said, ‘What?’ I never knew until eight years later. I couldn’t be upset because I just made the Olympic team, but all this time I just thought I was not good enough to play basketball.”

Question: Would you have stayed with track if you made the basketball team?
Nieto: “I don’t know. I still ran track but I definitely would have continued to pursue basketball. There was another high jumper who did play basketball, and my coach asked me where he was at and I had no idea. He said, ‘Exactly. Your are an Olympian.’”

Question: How do you juggle jumping with your acting career, and what lies ahead in that field for you?
Nieto: “Acting is really sporadic. You get an audition here and there maybe once or twice a month. I will have to drive to LA and take one or two days out of my training schedule on Saturday or something. It’s not a big deal. I can work around it.
“Plus, I am not at the point yet where I am doing movies all the time. Hopefully when I retire (from track) at the end of this year it will be. I want to get more into coaching as well until this acting takes off.
“Acting has been a great outlet for me. I encourage kids to have more than track and field. You need another outlet. You need something else to think about. If you are just focused on track and field, you will get burnt out easily. “

Question: So this is definitely your last year in track and field as a competitor?
Nieto: “Yeah. I am just having fun this year. Really, last year was my last year. I accomplished the goals I wanted to accomplish. This year it is just enjoy Europe, enjoy these last couple of meets. This is my 20th year of track and field. I started high jumping in 1993. That’s one reason I wanted to jump this year. I ranked in the top 10 in the nation since 1998, so this will be 15 straight years to do that if I do it this year. Twenty years is great already, so I am happy with that.”

Question: How did you even get into acting and a career that has included five films, including “Baseball's Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story?”
Nieto: “I always wanted to act, but the thing about it is I was always afraid to tell people because I did not want them to discourage me. After I made the Olympic team, I knew people tried to discourage me from being an Olympian and I didn’t let them, so why should I let them discourage me from acting?
“I started being more vocal and letting people know I wanted to do it. In 2007, I started doing some short things for my friend who started his own production company, and then in 2008 when I didn’t make the Olympic team, it was like, ‘What am I going to do?’
“I remember that year somebody said, ‘You should take some acting classes.’ I was in London and I took my first acting class, and ever since then I have been acting and auditioning and taking classes and diving into this passion of mine. I feel very fortunate, because not everybody gets to find another passion that they really like.”

Question: Is it harder to be an Olympic jumper or a successful actor or movie star?
Nieto: “Being a track athlete has prepared me for acting, and in a lot of ways they are similar with agents and the business of it. Only difference is that with track and field, you can work really hard and reap the benefits. You can work really hard in acting and not get anything if somebody says you are not any good or you are too tall or too short or too dark or whatever the reasoning is, you won’t get the job.
“But just like track and field, the longer you do something, the more opportunity you have to succeed. I always tell kids your only limitation is what you believe it will be. I am going after acting to be the best that I can be.
“Which one is harder? Acting is a lot harder than I thought it was. Physically, track and field is harder. Mentally, it is tapping into those emotions in acting that we don’t tap into unless something is happening to us. Being able to have those emotions on call is the hard part. The research about finding out as much as I can about this character, that’s the hard part.
“Really, memorizing lines is not that hard. You can work on the memory. Just keep working and it will get better. I work at memorizing, but it’s not the number one thing. That is creating the character and how is he going to react and say a line, which is not as hard as track and field in that aspect. But track and field is hard mentally, too, because you have to tell yourself you can clear 7-8 even if you have never done that.”