A two-time American Olympian injured in a backflip accident and told he might never walk again defied the odds Saturday, making good on a vow to walk at his wedding in San Diego.
Jamie Nieto, 40, beamed as he wed his bride, Jamaican hurdler Shevon Stoddart, at a ceremony at Christ Temple Apostolic Church in the east San Diego community of El Cajon.
Step by step, Nieto walked to the altar – a feat some doctors told him may not be possible.
But Olympians are known for their perseverance on their quest to victory, and Nieto had been working hard toward this very moment for months.
Nieto clutched a loved one's hand as he walked into his wedding, focused on the task before him. One step, two steps, deep breath. Three steps, four steps, all the way to the altar.
His family, sitting in the church, erupted into joyful clapping. The tears flowed.
Then, Nieto waited for his bride.
Stoddart, who has a beautiful voice, walked down the aisle to him, singing Celine Dion's ballad, "Because You Loved Me."
"You were my strength when I was weak," Stoddart sang, looking at her groom. "I'm everything I am because you loved me."
It was a medal-worthy moment.
And then, they each said, "I Do."
On April 23, 2016, Nieto suffered a spinal cord injury while doing a routine standing backflip – an exercise he’d done hundreds of times before. Nieto misjudged the flip and slipped on the artificial turf, forcing him straight back instead of into a somersault. The full weight of his body crashed on his neck, leaving him with no feeling in his hands and feet.
Doctors couldn’t predict if he’d ever walk again, or even be able to take more than a few steps.
Nieto has been undergoing rehabilitation to walk again ever since the accident, all with the goal to meet his bride at their wedding.
On good days, he can shuffle 130 steps without a cane or walker.
It’s an important distance – about the length from the altar to the church door that he vowed to achieve on Saturday.
Earlier this month, Nieto said people had been telling him his recovery was going fast. But he always wants to do better.
“I feel like it's not fast enough. I want to be better tomorrow. I'm built for speed, not for going slow. But I'm working on being the best walker I can be," he said.
Nieto said "there was never a doubt" that he will one day make a full recovery. Saturday’s moment was a big step toward his goals manifesting.
The high jumper who finished fourth at the 2004 Olympics and sixth at the 2012 London Games spent 12 days in intensive care, two months at an inpatient rehab facility and finally returned home to Los Angeles around this time a year ago.
At first, routine tasks were a struggle: Rolling up to get out of bed, brushing his teeth, getting dressed.
He didn't have insurance, either. So his friends launched a campaign that's raised more than $80,000.
Just like his days on the track, Nieto is driven as he goes through grinding workouts five days a week. He documents his progress on social media, with one of his posts — lifting weights and pushing a sled — being viewed more than 4,000 times.
"Physically, I wasn't the most talented athlete, but I worked really hard," said Nieto, who once demonstrated his leaping ability by high jumping a car. "I had the mental capacity to fight to the end. At that level, it's what separates good athletes from great athletes.
"I'm still trying to push those boundaries and limits."
Nieto met Stoddart around 2010 — a story he enjoys telling. They both showed up to audition for a television commercial "to sell TVs," Nieto said. "I just said, 'Hi.'"
She got the part.
Soon after, they became Facebook friends and one day he dropped Stoddart a note that they should have dinner after a track meet.
An instant connection formed between the high jumper and the 400-meter hurdler.
"We were talking about getting married before the accident, and when I had the accident it was clear to me, 'What are we waiting on?' You never know — you could be gone tomorrow," Nieto said. "I asked her if she was ready to get married now or wait until I got better."
Wait, she said.
She's been there for him throughout his recovery, feeding him in the hospital when he couldn't lift his arms, helping him get dressed when his fingers struggled with buttons and transferring him from his wheelchair to the bed when he struggled.
"As I get better and better, she has to do less and less," Nieto said. "She's done so much for me."
In mid-October, they went to a jewelry store to pick up the ring they'd selected. He proposed to her on the spot and in his wheelchair. He promised he would be ready to walk down the aisle by the wedding date.
A few months ago, that didn't seem likely without assistance. He could only take six shaky steps on his own.
Soon, it was 23 steps. Then 53, 80 and now 130 for their wedding day.
Stoddart's response? Go for 200.
"I keep pushing him forward," said Stoddart, in an interview earlier this month. "After he (walks down the aisle), I'm going to be like, 'Okay, now jog. Now run.' I continue to push him so he can be the best he can be."
Before his injury, Nieto wrote screenplays and appeared in movies, such as the film "Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories" in which he played Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente. He continues that work, finishing a script for an episode of the TV show "Family Time" and making a cameo in a soap opera, where he plays the role of a doctor.
Nieto also is 10 chapters into a book about his recovery that he hopes to turn into a film. He already has the leading actor picked out — himself.
"I don't see why not? I plan to be 100 percent again," Nieto said. "I don't think there will be any dry eyes in the theater."