Olympian was once an Eagle

“I started our Olympic tradition. I am TruEMU.” It’s a slogan that the vast majority of EMU students walk past everyday, as it is written in large letters on a banner hanging outside of Bowen Field House. But do people who walk past that banner really know what that Olympic tradition is?

Eastern Michigan University’s track and field team has sent a number of athletes to the Olympics and Jamie Nieto is just one of those athletes. Nieto, along with six other former student-athletes, was inducted as a member of the EMU Hall of Fame on Saturday morning.

While at Eastern, Nieto competed as a high-jumper. He was a three-time All-American and two-time Mid-American Conference indoor champion. He accomplished his greatest feat when he placed third in the 1999 NCAA indoor championship meet after clearing a personal-best of 7’6”.

“That was an awesome experience,” Nieto said. “That was a great experience for me and I felt like I did Eastern Michigan proud and I was happy with myself for what I did.”

In that same year, Nieto cleared a height of 7’5” which is the highest ever by a college athlete in the state of Michigan.

“That was another good experience; I had a lot of support, everybody was out.” Nieto said. “There was another guy from Toledo, who I used to compete against. He jumped 7’5” as well and he pushed me to jump 7’5”. And it was just a great experience because everybody here at Eastern was just pulling for me. It was kind of the first time I felt a huge backing and everybody was pulling for me to win.”

After earning his bachelor’s in Business Administration, Nieto continued his success in high-jump. He went on to win the 2004 Olympic Trials, where he cleared 7’7.75”, qualifying him for the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

He would jump a height of 7’8” in the games, which was the same as the second place winner. However, Nieto placed fourth after misses in earlier rounds of the competition.

Nieto started off as a basketball player and was not introduced to the world of track and field until his junior year of high school. After being cut from the team for a bad grade in geometry, a friend suggested that he try high-jump that season to help prepare him for the next season of basketball.

“I went out there and had a great time and made it to the California State Meet in my first year,” Nieto said. “I jumped 6’4” and at that time that was over my head. That’s as tall as I was then, which is what I am now.”

After high school, Nieto attended a junior college in his home state of California and from there he had to choose between the University of California, Berkeley and EMU. After weighing out the pros and cons of each school, Nieto rested his case and packed for Michigan.

“Berkeley was not too far away from where I’m from, Sacramento, and Eastern obviously was far away,” Nieto said. “So, I started doing some research on the school. I knew I wanted to go to a Division I school so these both fit the criteria and then my coach told me, ‘Jamie you can go to Berkley, they want you to wait a semester before they give you a scholarship, or you can go to Eastern Michigan who wants you right now.’”

“I was like well that’s a plus; on one hand I had students loans so I didn’t want to stop school so I didn’t have to start paying those back,” Neito said. “For two, it would give me an away college experience and the other thing, I found out they had a good college of business. Another plus, my coach said, ‘You can go to Berkeley and be a small fish in a big pond, or you can go to Eastern Michigan and be a big fish in a little pond.’ I kind of like the big fish in a small pond thing.”

Today, Nieto continues to compete internationally and is one of the top high-jumpers in the nation. He is currently training for the 2012 Olympic Trials. The standard for making the Olympic team, which has been hit by just two people in the nation, is 7’7”. Nieto’s goal is to clear that height before entering the trials and he has come close in recent competitions.

“I speak to kids a lot and I always like to tell them you’re only limitations are what you believe them to be,” Nieto said. “Basically, believe to be the best you can be, if you believe you can achieve, type of thing. Follow your dreams, just be blessed, keep praying, stay positive and I think you can achieve all your goals.”

Nieto sits amongst a host of Olympians who came out of Eastern’s track and field program. Track Olympians from the ‘90’s include Clement Chukwu, Fabian Rollins and Paul McMullen.

Other 2011 Hall of Fame inductees include Ingrid (Boyce) Benn, Howard Booth, Traci (Parsons) McMullen, Linda Milholland, Norm Parker and John Schmidt.

“It’s an awesome experience,” Nieto said of being inducted. “I was hoping that one day I would get inducted. It’s a great experience, you know, I look forward to doing bigger and better things. I just hope that Eastern always remembers me.”

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