Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was the mental limitations I put on myself after my injury”: Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols on her recovery from her injury and competing in summer and Winter Olympics

Posted on 18 April 2018 by Ben Morse

The stereotypical tale of a sport-stars journey from plucky youngster to international megastar is one that we have become accustomed to.

The overwhelming amount of original stories of individuals in sports makes it even more impressive when one of these stories stands out to the reader. 

And this was the case when I first heard about Alana Nichols and, shortly after, began to read about her extraordinary life. 

Born in New Mexico, USA in 1983, Nichols grew up playing numerous sports, but really excelled at softball in particular. 

Nichols credits her family as being the driving force behind her career in sports. She said: “My grandmother was a huge source of inspiration for me growing up. 

“She was always so involved as a spectator and showed real interest in my performance without adding any pressure to be successful, so I was free to grow as an athlete and her support was my encouragement.”

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Nichols spent her winters snowboarding in the resorts in Colorado until disaster struck when she was 17.

While trying a back-flip, she over-rotated slightly and landed back-first on a rock, with the doctors later telling her that she had broken her T10/11 vertebra in her back, which would leave her paralysed from the waist down. 

Nichols acknowledges that this injury came just at the wrong point in her career. She said: “I’ve had a lot of physical injuries as an athlete including a snowboarding accident that left me paralysed at the apex of my development as a softball athlete.”

Not someone to be held down for too long, Nichols discovered a passion for disability sports while studying at the University of Arizona. 

However, the transition into an entirely new sport was not a simple process. She said: “I would say the biggest hurdle I had to overcome was more around the mental limitations I put on myself after my injury. 

“I was really hard-headed about what it meant to be an athlete and didn’t think someone in a wheelchair could perform at an elite level. 

“It wasn’t until I tried the sport of wheelchair basketball that my perspective completely changed.”

She was first introduced to wheelchair basketball in 2002 and by the time the Athens Paralympics came around in 2004, Nichols had been named as an alternate for the U.S. women’s team. 

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Nichols’ rise into para-sports continued at the astronomic pace as she was part of the national team in 2005 and contributed heavily to the USA’s silver medal at the 2006 Wheelchair Basketball World Championship.

Nichols was able to balance this steep learning experience in para-sports with her studies as after she won the silver medal with the USA, she attended the graduate school of the University of Alabama, eventually graduating with a masters in kinesiology.  

Nichols made her first appearance at a Paralympics games in 2008 when she was part of the USA women’ wheelchair basketball team that won gold in Beijing. 

And she has fond memories of her first Paralympics, as she said: “My favourite event was probably the 2008 Beijing summer Paralympic Games. 

“It was my first Paralympics and a mind blowing experience to be in China for the first time! That alone was enough to make it my favourite but then we won gold! 

“It was above and beyond my wildest dreams.”

This success in basketball, while a huge achievement for Nichols, did not quite quench her thirst for competing at the top level in sport, no matter the discipline. 

Shortly after Beijing, Nichols moved to Colorado, where she began training in alpine skiing, a sport she had tried in 2002 but decided at the time to focus on basketball. 

Despite only beginning training in 2008, Nichols claimed her first win in the event in the super-G at the North American Cup in Kimberley, British Columbia, beating Paralympic gold medalist Laurie Stephens on the way to gold. 

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She won the downhill even and came third in super combined at the U.S. Adaptive Nationals later that year before competing at her first IPC Alpine World Cup in March 2010. 

Nichols won gold in the downhill, silver in the super combined and bronze in the super-G. All-in-all, a fairly productive outing. But even more success was on the horizon.

Later that month, Nichols competed at the Vancouver Paralympics and in those games, she won two gold medals, a silver medal and a bronze medal. She came first in the downhill and the giant slalom, second in the super-G, and third in the super combined.

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Winning medals in Vancouver and Beijing has given Nichols the accolade of becoming the first American woman to win gold medals in both the summer and winter games. 

Since Vancouver, she has gone on to win a further silver medal at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi while also competing in a wide range of sports, from kayaking to surfing. 

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Nichols even won the first ever all female adaptive surf competition in history and has collect top-10 finishes in all-male fields for the upright divisions. 

And despite not having the success on the slopes that she had hoped for at Pyeongchang 2018, Nichols still has positive memories of the competition. She said: “Well, my aim for the 2018 Games was to make it to those games and have an experience that was grounded in self-love. 

“I didn’t make it in 2018 but was able to grow immensely from that experience.”

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Between her training and competing, Nichols is a huge advocate for people with disabilities and does a huge amount of public speaking about her life and her experiences. 

As an advocate for people with disabilities, she said: “My piece of advice is to be open minded and to do the best you can with what you have in each experience.”

And Nichols aims to keep up this role as she said about her future: “I hope to continue to be an ambassador for opportunities for all people with disabilities both in sport and in life!”