Meet Alana Nichols
The first woman in history to take the gold in the summer and winter Paralympic Games shares her inspirational story and advice.
Sports: Alpine skiing and wheelchair basketball
Date of Birth: March 21, 1983
Hometown: Farmington, New Mexico
Current Residence: Wheat Ridge, Colorado
Education: University of Arizona ’06, Special Education Rehab and School Psychology; University of Alabama ’08, Kinesiology (Masters)
Meet speed-loving, hard-working, fearless Alana Nichols, who was introduced to sports at just 5 years old and quickly identified herself as an athlete. In high school, she played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I was more into organized sports in high school,” Alana said. “I even had plans to go to college on a softball scholarship.”
She started skiing and snowboarding in junior high.
“I realized I was an adrenaline junkie and I found that in snowboarding. I started snowboarding with advanced friends. I was hanging with the boys, learning fast, doing tricks. I had been thinking for a while about doing my first backflip.”
In November 2000, while snowboarding with friends in Durango, Colorado, 17-year-old Alana decided to try and tackle the backflip. There was only about three feet of snow that day, so there was really no base. She and her friends had no idea there was a large rock just beneath the snow cover. Alana didn’t just flip once- she accidentally over rotated the backflip and did a one-and-a-half, landing flat on her back on a rock, breaking her back in three places.
“I remember telling my friends, ‘I think I’m paralyzed.’ They said, ‘No, there’s no way.’ It was one of the most shocking experiences of my life. I still can’t find the words to describe it to this day.”
She was airlifted Farmington, endured a six-hour surgery and was hospitalized for four months. Since that day, Alana has been paralyzed from the waist down.
“At age 17, I was so confused and lost. At one point I thought it was like breaking my arm—it would eventually heal. I couldn’t understand why everyone around me was so devastated. Being an athlete all my life, I had never dreamed of losing my legs.”
Until about two years later while at the University of New Mexico, Alana was in a constant battle with this new life thrust upon her. One day, she came across her fellow students playing wheelchair basketball.
“I saw it, and that’s what it took for me to believe it was legit. I decided to give it a try, but I couldn’t shoot. It wasn’t even close. I was upset, but on the other hand, these guys were doing it. I was immediately challenged.”
Driven by the desire for a good challenge, Alana pursued wheelchair basketball. What happened as a result was nothing short of a miracle. The very thing that Alana had thought would never be a part of her life again became her saving grace.
“I didn’t realize the importance of sweat and those endorphins. Sport became my rehab.”
Alana ended up transferring to the University of Arizona to play on its wheelchair basketball team, making her way to earn a spot of the U.S. Paralympic wheelchair basketball team and winning the gold in the 2008 Beijing games.
After realizing her capability to adapt, Alana decided to get back on the slopes, despite her life-changing injury.
“I was hesitant to get back into it not by fear, but because I knew it wouldn’t be what I was used to doing before with my friends.”
With the dream of moving to Colorado to be a part of the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) program and train to ski on the U.S. Paralympic team, Alana got in touch with the head coach, Erik Petersen. This dream wove a tangled web, however. There were various fees and a huge relocation to consider. Petersen said it would be impossible. (Based off just one conversation with Alana, I highly doubt “impossible” is in this woman’s vocabulary.) In her true fighter style, she went on make the U.S. team in 2009 and started her journey with the NSCD.
“I have the best friends in the world. They threw me a fundraiser so I could stay in the program. And I have to credit Erik Petersen; he is the best coach in the world.”
Alana needed a lot of help in essentially re-learning to ski. At the same time, she explained, it involved a lot of independent work.
Her Greatest Achievement
Two years of hard work and perseverance won her two gold, one silver and one bronze in Vancouver during the 2010 Paralympic Games. This was not an easy feat—not because she had to learn how to win without being able to use her legs—but because Alana’s brother was murdered while she was training for Vancouver.
“I’d rather break my back 10 times over rather than go through the pain of losing a sibling. I didn’t know what to do. When my brother passed away, I turned to skiing. I had to ski.”
Having that outlet and those goals helped Alana grieve and she ended up dedicating her Vancouver success to her brother. Alana talks more about him in this intimate video:
“When I was competing for my first Vancouver gold medal, it was pouring rain. I had never skied in the rain. But I felt my brother there with me. My greatest achievement was being able to get there after what happened, not with my injury, but with my brother’s passing.”
The video below shows Alana winning her first gold for downhill in Vancouver. Just seconds from the start, the commentator says, “Wow look at the speed she is carrying. She is not afraid to go fast.” Alana’s love for speed is no secret.
“There’s a video online of me just wailing. It was so bittersweet being a rookie and being able to come back from that experience and win. I was able to focus and have faith in the physical and emotional preparation I had done to that point.”
Here is that video:
This year in Sochi, Alana won silver for downhill and 4th in giant slalom, but was knocked unconscious on the super-G run (to watch, skip to the fourth video in the below playlist).
“I get it’s risky, but I do all I can do avoid getting injured. Life is so much bigger than ski racing. Follow your peace. Skiing was my peace, even when my family didn’t want me to. Find your passion. Whether it’s an inch, foot or mile—move forward. My favorite quote is, ‘Do what you can with what you have where you’re at.’ I had working arms and a mind that knew the game, so I worked hard with what I had to succeed.”
What’s Next for Alana
Now age 31, Alana has had a well-rounded career. She’s training for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janiero, competing in wheelchair basketball. Based in Denver, she trains at the NSCD. Nothing will stop Alana from getting her fill of thrill. Last I spoke to her, she was getting ready for a trip to Hawaii to surf. She is also interested in pursuing public speaking.
I personally hope she becomes a motivational speaker someday. With her contagious upbeat personality and quite the story to tell, Alana can inspire anyone—athlete or not.
Follow Alana on Twitter @alananichols21
By Lauren Reiniger