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Paralympics Place – Meet Alana Nichols

Spirit of Sport Newsletter – Winter 2013-2014

Becoming the first American woman to win gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games is an amazing achievement. Doing it after a setback like Alana Nichols’s is almost implausible.  A product of Farmington, New Mexico, Nichols was a star volleyball and softball athlete in high school on her way to a full-ride athletics scholarship.

However, her dreams of collegiate sports stardom were abruptly altered on November 19, 2000.

Nichols and a group of friends were snowboarding in the Colorado backcountry, practicing backflips on makeshift jumps. She had executed the stunt numerous times on land and trampolines, but this particular attempt she over-rotated her body, landing on a slab of rock that was hidden beneath the snow.

Alana’s body ‘tacoed’ over the boulder, the impact injuring her T11 vertebrae and breaking the T10 and T12 in half. She then had to endure a two-hour wait in the snow for rescuers and first responders to arrive.

“It’s hard to find words for what it meant to be paralyzed,” said Nichols. “It wasn’t so much the pain, but trying to process it all. It took a while to wrap my head around it—I went through two years of mourning my loss.”

After years of physical therapy, her life began to feel whole again when she discovered the sport of wheelchair basketball.

Although she was unfamiliar with adaptive sports, Nichols was immediately hooked after watching a five-on-five game on campus at the University of Arizona. After first sitting in a chair for the sport, her natural sporting instincts came rushing back and she quickly became the best player on the team.

Nichols was ready to live again through sport, and her drive would lead her and the rest of Team USA to gold at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Soon after, she was ready to return to the mountain and turned her attention to alpine skiing. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver she medaled in four different disciplines, winning gold in downhill sitting and giant slalom sitting. This feat allows her to lay claim to being the first American woman to win gold at both a Summer and Winter Paralympic Games.

But her biggest takeaways from her Paralympic successes have nothing to do with medals, records, or prizes.

“I’m so glad to have gained a respect for other cultures and a broader perspective of people around the world,” said Nichols. “I feel fortunate to live in the United States where people with disabilities and adaptive sports are not only respected, but celebrated.”

She says she would like to spread that goodwill to communities of children in underprivileged nations someday.

“I’ve always wanted the chance to give back to the sport that meant so much to me, and to work with others as part of a non-profit group to share my love for sport with others.”

Before that, however, she has at least one more athletic endeavor she would like to pursue: surfing.

“It’s not a Paralympic sport yet, but it could be someday. I love the ocean and always find a place for it in my life.”

In preparation for competing in all five alpine skiing disciplines (downhill, slalom, giant slalom, Super G, and combined) at Sochi, Alana has been living and training at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. Follow her path to Paralympic glory on Twitter at @alananichols21.

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