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CEDAR FALLS — The state of Iowa, and Northern Iowa’s track and field program, will be well-represented at the 2020 Summer Paralympics.
Former Cedar Rapids Prairie prep and UNI graduate Jessica Heims was named to Team USA last week after finishing first in the f64 discus (f64 designation includes athletes with below knee prosthesis) at the Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis on June 19.
Heims will be joined in Tokyo by former Solon prep and UNI sophomore Erin Kerkhoff.
Kerkhoff finished second in the T13 400- and 100-meter dashes at trials and ranks fifth and ninth, respectively, in the world in the two events. T13 includes athletes with the least severe vision impairment to be eligible for para athletics.
Heims — ranked second in the world in her event — will be making her second trip to the Paralympics after competing in Rio in 2016.
“It was just as exciting and I think a little bit more nerve-wracking this time around,” Heims said.
Heims’ nerves were amplified by a trimmed-down Paralympic roster because of the ongoing health and safety protocols from the pandemic.
The 2020 Paralympic Games, postponed last summer due to COVID-19, run Aug. 24 through Sep. 5.
With last year’s postponement a memory, Heims said getting to this point has been nothing short of crazy.
“I think the word ‘crazy’ sums it up pretty well. I think it really helped us all be grateful to just be on a track or in competition again this year,” Heims said. “My dad built me an indoor throwing ring, per se, out of a bunch of wood and a little net hung from the ceiling. Nothing (got damaged) too bad. I had to trust my imagination a lot this (past) year with training.”
Kerkhoff said the challenges her 20/400 vision confronts her with go away on the track.
“In life it’s definitely more of a struggle, especially recognizing faces. It’s really hard to see people that are about 3 feet and farther (away),” Kerkhoff said.
“I can’t drive. Even, like, seeing words on a menu at a restaurant (is hard). So, the day-to-day challenges are always kind of there, but track is kind of the one place where I don’t have any challenges and I can kind of be independent and do it on my own.”
While she was approached by U.S. Paralympics track and field coach Joaquim Cruz as a senior at the Drake Relays, her trip to Tokyo never would have happened if not for UNI track and field coach Dave Paulsen.
“I don’t know if I wasn’t ready at the time, but I definitely had a little background, but Coach Paulsen finally came up to me in practice one day. I wasn’t even expecting it and we just kind of had a pretty deep conversation about it,” Kerkhoff said. “He had to convince me a little bit because I was a little nervous about it since I didn’t know a ton of details. He did talk me into it and it all worked out, so I'm thankful that he did.”
Asked if she’s thought about the moment she’ll compete for the first time as a Paralympian with a Team USA jersey on, the Solon native was caught off guard.
“Oh my gosh, I haven’t until right now,” Kerkhoff said. “Yeah, wow, I’m going to have to prepare for that moment. That’s going to be pretty exciting.”