Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols’ tale is one of sweat, sport and determination | VailDaily.com
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Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols’ tale is one of sweat, sport and determination

John O’Neill
Special to the Daily
Paralympian Alana Nichols now finds herself on the water every day in San Diego, either training for her 2016 goals, or in the waves surfing for pleasure.
Robert Beck | Special to the Daily |

If you go …

What: “On Sweat, Sport and Determination,” overcoming adversity and finding a path toward greatness, with Alana Nichols, part of the Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure Series.

When: Tuesday, Feb. 2; 5:30 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. program.

Where: Donovan Pavilion, 1600 South Frontage Road W., Vail.

Cost: Free, $10 suggested donation.

More information: Visit vailsymposium.org.

Olympians and Paralympians have a habit of seeing their world in “quads” or four-year blocks between Olympic and Paralympic competition. That span is when athletes train, building their bodies and developing mindsets worthy of competing against the best in the world.

Few, if any, have developed more aggressively and diversely across the quads than Alana Nichols, one of the most decorated American athletes of all time. She won gold in the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympic Games with the women’s wheelchair basketball team and two more gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Paralympic Games in downhill and giant slalom sit-skiing, becoming the first woman to win gold in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games.

At the turn of 2016, Nichols is a veteran of success in the athletic realm, a master of her physical form and mental fortitude, but arriving in this state has been a fight physically, mentally and emotionally. Nichols’ tale is one of pure sweat, sport and determination.

The injury

In 2000, at the age of 17, Nichols was an able-bodied, three-sport athlete and was in the process of choosing between NCAA scholarships when she and her friends decided to take an early-season ski trip to a resort near Durango, not far from her hometown of Farmington, New Mexico.

The snow was deep for the early season, but a base of packed snow hadn’t yet formed to shelter skiers from hazards below the surface. Nichols and her friends decided to build a jump. Toward the end of the day, Nichols decided to try a backflip. When she hit the lip of the jump, she threw herself backward harder than necessary, completing one and a half rotations.

With no base, Nichols landed back-first on a boulder just below the surface. Her back broke in three places, instantly paralyzing her from the waist down. She was airlifted from the scene and went through eight hours of back reconstruction surgery.

“I woke up paralyzed at 17,” Nichols said. “It was more confusing that anything. Nothing made sense. Wrapping my head around paralysis as an athlete who used her body intentionally every day to enjoy life and participate in life was extremely difficult.”

From that point on, it was all about figuring out how to use her body again. The basics came first — sitting up in bed and dressing herself. Then came how to transfer into her wheelchair, and then it was learning how to get around her house independently.

Her thoughts were never far from competition and athleticism, but her attitude toward those endeavors was rotten. She enrolled at the University of New Mexico feeling less than glum.

“I sulked around and moped,” Nichols said. “I felt like I lost so much. I was in mourning for who I used to be and what my life used to be like.”

Then one day, she took a shortcut across campus that brought her through a gym where a full-court, five-on-five game of wheelchair basketball was in full swing. Nichols saw how violent, aggressive and sweaty it was.

“I had heard about wheelchair sports before, but I really wasn’t impressed,” Nichols said. “I was prideful in my athletic career, and when people tried to talk to me about adaptive sports, I was close minded about it. Then I saw this game and I couldn’t resist trying it.”

The sport resurfaced emotions she had tried to bury after the accident. Only, these emotions were positive. She was suddenly back out there sweating, competing and working with a team. It was everything sports had always done for her.

She accepted an opportunity to play wheelchair basketball for the University of Arizona and was later named an alternate for the 2004 women’s wheelchair basketball team at the Athens Paralympic Games, just four years after her injury.

The history

The rest is history … literally. Since she first sat in a basketball chair, Nichols has blazed a trail of unprecedented athletic accomplishment in summer and winter sports.

In the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, Nichols and the American team dominated group play, staying undefeated against Germany, Australia, Great Britain and Brazil. In the medal round, Nichols and the American team beat China in the quarterfinals, 75-31; in the semis, they topped Australia, 60-47, and secured the gold medal beating Germany, 50-38.

“We went into the tournament undefeated, and we won a gold medal,” Nichols said. “We were one of the best wheelchair basketball teams in history, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been there.”

Within that quad, from 2004 to 2008, Nichols zeroed in not just her athletic potential, but her attitude and personal progress.

“I think one of the common denominators in the two quads (2000-2004 and 2004-2008) was I was making progress,” Nichols said. “Until 2004, comparatively speaking, my progress appeared small, but it was big to me. It was about menial tasks, like eating independently and dealing with how I was seen in public.

“After 2004 and until 2008, I was making progress in that I was beginning to own my life as an athlete again. The focus was to become the best in the world. My goals were different, but altogether, it was about making progress every day.”

For most of that first quad, from 2000 to 2004, Nichols had no vision or end goal. She felt a loss of purpose. It wasn’t until she was named as an alternate to the 2004 Games that her mentality shifted. She had an education, a goal and a plan to prepare. Her belief in herself and her future resulted in that 2008 gold medal.

The progress continued. Before Beijing, Nichols watched adaptive skiing in the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy. She had been skiing a handful of times since her accident, but after the 2008 Games were over, she began training nearly every day for the LW-11 sit-ski category to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games. Her quad was about to be cut in half. Nichols was now a skier.

She qualified and entered her first Winter Games inexperienced and as a member of the D-Team. While others expected little from her, Nichols had learned the importance of believing in herself. She finished her work in Vancouver as the most medaling athlete in the Games.

Nichols went on to compete again at the London Games in 2012, where the team finished fourth. She also competed in the Sochi Games in 2014, taking bronze in the super-combined.

The legacy

Nichols is now in San Diego training in a new sport, sprint kayaking, in which she hopes to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But with four Paralympic Games’ worth of experience, she’s making the more profound realizations of a veteran athlete.

“I am always going to be competitive. I am always going to do everything I can to win, but I am noticing it is becoming less about gold medals,” Nichols said. “Certainly, a gold medal is the ultimate goal. But in that is a whole process of self-discovery.”

Her journey has been one of success but also one toward independence, first learning the basics of eating, dressing and getting around, and then finding her way back into sports and onto podiums at one of the world’s most prestigious competitions.

“When I was 17, I had to come terms with a significant disability,” Nichols said. “If I could give my 17-year-old self the lessons I know now, I would tell her the sheer importance of believing in yourself and the importance to capitalize on life.”

John O’Neill is the marketing director for the Vail Symposium.


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