10 Jan Behind the scenes with Jamie Nieto, Olympian & USATF Foundation grantee
INDIANAPOLIS – Jamie Nieto has been one of the most consistent and popular track & field athletes this country has ever produced, having been ranked in the top-ten for well over a decade in the high jump. Jamie won the 2004 Olympic Trials and went on to take fourth place at the Athens Games with a personal best clearance of 2.34 meters (7’8”). He was the 2008 Olympic Trials runner-up, 2007 USA Outdoor runner-up, 2004 National Indoor Champion, 2003 USA Outdoor Champion, 2001 Indoor Championship runner-up and 2003 Pan American Games silver medalist. As you will see, Jamie is also defined both by his work off the field, giving back to the sport that has afforded him many opportunities and by his budding new acting and screenwriting career. For the latter, Jamie was greatly assisted and mentored by Foundation Directors Jack Wickens, Dan McClory, Frank Marshall and Nicholas Sparks. He recently completed filming “Baseball’s Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story.” A recipient of a 2008 Elite Athlete grant, Nieto lives and trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA, and represents the New York Athletic Club (NYAC).
USATF FOUNDATION: Hi Jamie, thanks for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to let us and your many fans know what’s going on in your life. With the Olympic Trials in Eugene only five months away, how is your training going; are you healthy and injury-free?
JAMIE NIETO: My training is going extremely well. I feel very strong and I’m just starting to get into jumping. I’m injury-free and I’m looking forward to having a very successful season.
FOUNDATION: You’ve had a long, successful career in track & field. How did you initially get involved with the sport and who provided guidance and inspiration when first starting out? Pointing to a few highlights, what would they be?
JN: I initially got involved with the sport through basketball. My junior year in high school I was cut from the varsity basketball team due to a bad grade. A friend then suggested that I come out for the track team. He informed me that if I did the high jump, it would help me out with basketball the next year. So I brought my grades up and then started to jump for my high school. I ended up making it to the California State Meet and received the ” Most Improved Athlete” award. Making it to the state meet and discovering that I had a talent for high jumping was a big highlight for me at that time in my life. When I went to Junior College, I met former high jumper/coach and current mentor Joe Radan. Joe inspired and taught me what it took technically and mentally to be a high jumper at the elite level.
FOUNDATION: We’ve read that you’ll be retiring from jumping after the London 2012 Games. At this juncture, what would it mean to wear another USA singlet and march into Olympic Stadium as part of Team USA?
JN: At this juncture in my career, it would be amazing if and when I get to wear the USA singlet and march into the Olympic Stadium. It gives me such a sense of pride to be able to represent my country on that level. At the 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies, I felt at that time it was the happiest moment of my life because I accomplished a goal that virtually seemed impossible.
FOUNDATION: Changing gears for a moment, you’ve now appeared in a number of films, including Kontrast, The Encounter and Jerusalem Countdown. Please tell us about your transition into acting and your current project now in production: “Baseball’s Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story.” How does it feel to play a baseball Hall of Fame legend known equally for his charity work, which ultimately led to his tragic, untimely death in 1972 while on a mission to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua? Did you play any baseball growing up?
JN: My transition into acting has been great. It’s also been a huge learning experience. I started doing short films with a friend of mine in 2007 and then started to take classes in 2008, and have been taking classes and acting ever since. I feel so lucky to be able to have found another passion. I recently just finished working on a film called “Baseball’s Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story,” where I played Roberto Clemente. This was an awesome experience because I had to learn how to play baseball again, having not played since little league. I started going to the batting cages and worked up to hitting an 80 mph fastball. I even joined a softball league and studied everything about Roberto Clemente, carrying a notebook around with me full of notes about his life. Playing Clemente comes with a lot of pressure because he has so many fans, and I wanted to do my best to embody everything Clemente was. This is the first and only feature film ever done on Clemente’s life and I pray that the movie is received well, that the fans are happy, that it inspires, and touches peoples lives.
FOUNDATION: Would you please talk about how the USA Track & Field Foundation has impacted your athletic career. Additionally, through the Foundation’s Elite Athlete Mentoring Program, you’ve received career guidance from Foundation Directors Frank Marshall (noted film producer) and Nicholas Sparks (best-selling author). What’s it been like to work with such accomplished people who are at the top of their fields? What advice would you give to people looking to make a career change?
JN: The USATF Foundation has been great! Through receiving grants to help with my training and traveling to connecting me with mentors in the Hollywood business, I have been able to sit and talk to people like Frank Marshall and Nicholas Sparks to pick their brain and figure out the best way to break into the entertainment industry. Mr. Marshall and Mr. Sparks gave me great ideas about producing and writing, and detailed how they started their careers. The only advice that I would give people that are looking to make a career change is that you should have a passion for whatever you do, because people who love their jobs never work a day in their life (I’m quoting Confucius). Plan to have longevity in your career, because the longer you do something and work hard to become better at it, the more of a chance you have to succeed. Dream big… Your only limitations are what you believe them to be.
FOUNDATION: Between training, acting, writing, travel, taking classes & auditions, how have you managed to keep your focus and balance? Do you find that the discipline necessary to compete in athletics at an elite level has carried over to your new career?
JN: Actually for me, training, acting, writing, traveling, taking classes, auditioning helps me to stay focused. I never get too overwhelmed with one thing or get burned out on another. I believe everyone should have an outlet, but make sure your priorities are in line. For me right now, making an Olympic Team comes first… then everything else. As for having discipline from track and it carrying over, there are definite parallels to success in all things, not just acting. I believe if you are successful in one endeavor and you attack your other endeavors in that same fashion, you will have an opportunity to be just as successful. Again, I believe passion, hard work and longevity will take you where you want to go.
FOUNDATION: Fourth place at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games was a terrific result, but just missing out on a medal had to have been somewhat bitter-sweet. Has that experience and not going to Beijing in 2008 due to not attaining the IAAF “A” standard provided you with extra added incentive for 2012?
JN: Placing 4th at the Olympic Games in 2004 and missing out in ’08 due to the IAAF “A” standard was disheartening for me, more so the latter of the two. It has definitely made me want to prove something to myself that I still can jump high and I can make another Olympic Team. To make one Olympic team shows greatness at one time, but to make two, shows greatness over time. I do not want to be remembered as, “he had a couple of good years.” I would like to be remembered by people saying he competed well and finished strong. I cannot think of a better way to end your career than at an Olympic Games and I look forward to that day. By God’s graces that will happen with a medal in hand this time. AMEN!
FOUNDATION: If we shuffled through your desk, what kind of scripts would we find? Are you drawing inspiration from personal experiences related or not to athletics?
JN: If you looked through my desk or laptop, you would find scripts that are sports related as well as stories that have been drawn from my personal life. I have about 4 scripts I’m writing that will be full-length feature films. I’m planning to write an episodic and a dozen shorts, all of various genres. It could be anything for family, crime drama, sci-fi, comedy, etc. I’m currently working on a webseries that I and a friend of mine (Von Ware) both wrote called BLOOD BROTHERS. It will be 17 episodes and we are currently raising money to shoot it. There has already been expressed interest from big production companies that have ties to networks. I would like to encourage everyone to check out our fundraising platform www.indiegogo.com/bloodbrothers.
FOUNDATION: A question asked of many in the entertainment business, what actors and directors would you like to work with and do you see yourself behind the camera at some point?
JN: Which actors and directors would I like to work with is a great question. When I think of that answer it makes me think about actors or directors that I could learn from. I would love to work with Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle… WOW… this list could go on and on. As for a few directors, The Hughes Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Wayne Kramer, Clint Eastwood, Spielberg, Lucas, Spike Lee, again this list could go on and on. The other question you asked about being behind camera and do I see myself doing that? Well, at some point in my career I might direct, but right now producing and writing are very enjoyable. I plan to be an actor for the rest of my life and I feel blessed to have discovered another passion.
FOUNDATION: You’ve just held your 2nd annual Track & Field Kids Camp on January 7, 2012, at the Olympic Training Center. Please talk about how the idea for this camp came about and describe some of your other community activities. After retirement, will the event continue and do you expect to continue your work in the community and stay involved in track & field in some capacity?
JN: I love that I am doing a Youth Track Camp. This is the second year I had it and it was an awesome experience. We had some great athletes that helped out: Akiba McKinney, Miki and Lisa Barber, Dominique Arnold, and Jared Rome. It all started for me as a way to give back to the youth. As a younger elite athlete, I always picked the veterans’ brains. I would ask people who were in my event (and not in my event) how they made Olympic Teams, how they became so successful, and try to figure out how I can take that same path. I was a sponge and learned a lot from those veterans. My camp is run that way. I let the kids know that you might be a high jumper, but you could also learn something from a thrower or a sprinter that might really resonate and help you to be a more driven and more successful athlete. I want to keep running this camp year after year and I’m already looking forward to, and planning, for next year. You can find out more information at my website www.JamieNieto.com. After retirement, I plan to do some coaching while still pursuing acting.
“The Foundation wishes Jamie the best of luck in his 2012 London Olympic Games pursuit!”