I first met Jamie Nieto at a youth track and field camp I helped to organize in 2009. I was trying to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago, and we invited six elite level athletes to teach kids the basics of track & field. When Jamie introduced himself to the kids, he said he had two goals in life--to star in a feature film movie and to make the Olympic podium for the High Jump.
As a 27 year-old Jamie finished fourth in the 2004 Olympic High Jump final and just missed making the team in 2008. He took up acting in 2007. At the time, those goals appeared quite lofty to me.
Although we became online friends, we fell out of touch. I was sitting on my couch one day this March, trying to figure out how I would pay my overdue rent even though I had no foreseeable immediate income and a Facebook message popped onto my screen from Jamie Nieto.
He asked me to donate to his IndieGoGo Project for his new web series, Blood Brothers. Although my heart wanted to jump at the opportunity to support a brother reach his cinematic dreams, my bank account was saying no, no, no.
I gave $5—the smallest amount I have ever given someone for their crowd-sourced fundraising campaign—and shared his campaign with my 2,000 Facebook friends.
After that brief online interaction, though only worth $5, I began to see more of Jamie’s posts (guess it was that Facebook algorithm). But they didn’t talk about Blood Brothers, they talked about winning high jumping competitions and making this the A standard, a minimum height required for athletes to make in order to compete in the Olympic Games.
But wasn’t Jamie a retired high jumper who had transitioned into full-time acting, I thought?
Am I the only one that thought you had retired from high jumping after not making the 2008 Olympic Team? What have you been doing these last four years?
I was still competing and I never retired. The competitions weren’t going as well as I would like and I was planning on retiring this year. When you are not doing really well, you don’t get as much press. It wasn’t a lot to write about.
So how did you end up balancing high jumping with acting?
In 2008, although I finished second at the Olympic trials, I didn’t make the Olympic team. I failed to make the A standard by the Olympic trials but jumped it three days later. Despite an appeal, I still didn’t make the team. During that same summer, I was in Europe going to different competitions and there was this two-week gap with the Olympic competitions. So I went out to take an acting class in London. I’ve been doing that (acting) ever since. That was the path that God wanted me to go down. I’m not sure I would have taken the class if I had made the Olympic team.
Why didn’t you retire after 2008 and what helped you to improve in 2012?
In 2012 I said, this is it. My whole mind frame just changed. I told myself, “Every meet you gotta jump the A standard, 7’ 7.” I haven’t jumped 7’ 7” in almost 8 years. Before the trials I had gone to 12 meets. And at every meet, I went for the A Standard. God might not come when you call him but he’s always right on time. I made the A standard at the adidas Grand Prix in June, where I jumped 7’ 7.
I won the Olympic trials, where it rained, because I’m experienced and I’m a veteran. I knew that if it rains, my chances of making this team are going up. Most high jumpers don’t jump high in the rain.
What can a regular person who can’t jump 7’ 7” learn from your experience of the last year? How can they achieve their own A standard?
I like to encourage people all the time. I like to tell people that it takes time to be great at something. It takes time to be successful. A lot of people don’t just blow up out of nowhere. A lot of times they have been in there grinding. The longer that you are in something, the more an opportunity you have to become better.
It’s also the continued perseverance. I continued to pray. I keep working on my skills. It is going to take time. You have to be able to work hard and improving your skills. A man who loves his job never works a day in his life. If I jump next year that will be 20 years of participating in the high jump and 15 years of being ranked in top 10 in the United States.
Tell me more about this acting class that you took and how you started doing short movies and commercials?
I started doing short movies in 2007. I took first acting class in London with Stephen Moore at the Jermyn Street Theatre in the summer of 2008. It was about three days but it was an intense class 9am-9pm. When I came back to San Diego, I got into a theater class called the Rehearsal Room by Carey Scott. I love that he teaches the art and craft of acting. He also teaches the business of acting. Those types of things that can make you look really green.
How do you balance this all – the training and acting?
I take acting classes at night. I usually have the weekends off. Big auditions are few and far in between. When I get those, I’ll drive up to LA maybe once or twice a month. Right now I mainly do a lot of industrial commercials.
So what type of feature film work have you done?
I have been in five feature films, Jerusalem Countdown, The Encounter, which is a faith-based film and I’m starring through the whole film. Recently I did another movie called Redline, which is probably going to hit the stores in the fall. I’m also starring in the Roberto Clemente story. It’s an independent film.
How did you get the part for the Roberto Clemente movie?
I heard about auditions about the Roberto Clemente movie from a FB friend. I sent in my headshot and resume before the summer and never heard anything back. Then at the end of the summer I received an email while I was in Europe to audition for the Roberto Clemente movie. I quickly flew back home and auditioned. I eventually won the role. The director told me that over 3000 people auditioned/or submitted for the role. I was so happy to receive the part.
Do you see any similarities between yourself and Roberto Clemente in your sport and personal development?
I see a lot of similarities between Roberto Clemente and myself. The main one I took from Clemente's life is that he wanted to go from Glory to Glory in his sport and I feel the same and wanted to do the same with making the Olympic team.
I think I can relate to Clemente because of my Latino background. I'm part Mexican. My mother is Mexican and white and my father is African American. I feel like I understood where he in his personal life in America was coming from.
I've spoken with the director about the release of the film and he was telling me that the editing process has been long but he is looking to have the final cut by the fall. I believe the director would like to send it to the festival circuit.
For the last two years, you’ve also been producing your own web series right? What is that process like? What is it about?
I’m producing my own web series called Blood Brothers. The producer is Andrew Eckblad, who is a six time Emmy award winner. Blood Brothers is an urban crime drama. We are looking to capitalize on the fans from the Wire. It’s about a guy who was in grad school and his mother got sick. She can’t afford to pay the doctor bills. His brother is the drug dealer. He ends up going back home and getting a job with his brother. I’m a big fan of surprise endings so who you think is calling the shots is not really calling the shots.
My goal for the project was to make them look as cinematic as possible. I don’t want this look like a B movie. I wanted this to look professional. With the budget that we have, we shot three episodes in March. We shot the trailer and it looks amazing.
Do you feel like other athletes take you seriously as an actor?
I’ve always wanted to act but I was afraid to tell people because I didn’t want them to discourage them from my dreams. I started telling people a little bit in 2004. People didn’t say much. Now that there are people who know me and have seen my work they are like Jamie, he is a real actor. People who see it get converted.
How are the Olympics helping your acting career?
It can definitely put me on some people’s radars. People see my dedication in track and field and see that it can transfer to acting.
So what are your chances of winning Gold?
God willing it will be raining on the days that I jump. I know I can jump in the rain. If that happens, it can be anybody’s day. If it’s sunny then I’ll have to jump 7’8” and three quarters. It’s not too far away from 7’ 7”.
I see a lot of your Facebook posts highlight your spirituality. Is that something that has always been important to you?
I just really started getting back into church regularly the last year. I made sure to read my Bible every day. I got my faith strong. I think because of that my mindframe was totally different. With everything I did, I had one last chance this year. This is going to be my last meet this year. This is my last time at UCLA or at the Madison Square Garden games. The main thing was just making the A standard. I had to keep trying to jump at 7’ 7” to shed my fear of it. I knew if I could keep my composure and stay at the bar, I could clear it.
Do you have a favorite bible verse?
It’s Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)... but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. I like the part of soaring of the wings like eagles because that reminds me of high jumping.
Jamie will be competing in the high jump on August 5, and hopefully on August 7 for the high jump finals. Check out his website at jamienieto.com. Follow him on twitter at @jamienieto and #teamnieto.
Kiratiana Freelon is an author and travel expert. Follow on twitter: @kiratiana; Blog: http://kiratianatravels.com; Follow at the Olympic and Paralympics Games at #kiralympics.