Alana Nichols is a natural-born competitor.
The Farmington, N.M. native grew up playing a multitude of sports, such as volleyball and basketball at her local YMCA. Nichols loved to play softball — she was even getting attention from programs from schools in the Southwest — and in the winters, she would head to Colorado to snowboard.
In 2000, Nichols was out on the mountain for a snowboarding trip, when she went to do a backflip. The trick didn’t go as planned as Nichols over-rotated and landed directly on a rock, smashing her spine.
“I broke my back in three places and became paralyzed upon impact,” Nichols said, recalling the moment from twenty-one years ago. “It switched up my plan from there, to say the least.”
Now, instead of getting ready to play college softball, Nichols was re-learning how to use her own body. With an injury so severe, it was easy to get down, to feel isolated, and lost in what seemed like a new world. Nichols longed for competition again, and the team atmosphere and community that each sport gave its athletes as well as her.
“I was so naturally an athlete [before the injury] that it made sense for me to just continue playing,” Nichols said. “After becoming disabled, I felt so alone and isolated, and I didn’t really interact with anybody with a disability until I found out about wheelchair basketball.”
Nichols was introduced to wheelchair basketball when she saw it being played at the University of New Mexico. Finally finding an avenue for her to play sports again, Nichols quickly excelled, and earned an alternate spot on the U.S. Paralympic team in the 2004 Athens Games. Four years later, Nichols won a gold medal with her squad.
“We worked so hard for five years to win that gold,” Nichols said, recalling the moment.
After returning home with her gold medal, Nichols moved from Alabama to Colorado, where she started to train for adaptive alpine skiing. Nichols was the underdog in the events she competed in leading up to Vancouver in 2010, where she earned two golds in the downhill and giant slalom events, as well as a silver in super-G and bronze medal in super combined.
“I didn’t have anything to lose in Vancouver,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t sponsored, and I was a rookie on the team. I didn’t have the pressure of getting the titles or maintaining sponsorships. Those were some of my best performances.”
The medals made her the first-ever female Paralympian to win a gold medal in both the winter and the summer games, just 10 years after the injury that changed her life.
After her performances and victories in Vancouver, Nichols was on cloud nine, but there were still some hardships that she and her family faced that made these victories hard to celebrate. Starting when she was an infant, Nichols’ father passed away in a drunk driving accident and she was raised by her grandparents. Tragedy didn’t seem to stop there when Nichols’ brother — who was her biggest fan — sadly passed away.
Nichols was back to wheelchair basketball after Vancouver and came in fourth place with the team that traveled to the London Games in 2012. Nichols then competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and even though she had torn ligaments while training, she was able to close out time at the games with a silver in downhill skiing.
It seemed as though Nichols found her niche, but she wasn’t done trying new sports. Starting with adaptive kayaking, Nichols won the bronze in the sprint kayak event in Germany. Her third-place finish landed her a spot on the Paralympic team for the 2016 Rio Olympics and Nichols finished seventh overall.
While Nichols is no longer competing “competitively”, she also is not retired. Nichols continues to play and enjoy the sports that she has picked up along her journey as a Paralympian, but most importantly, as an athlete, all while balancing becoming a mom. Nichols' newest activity is surfing and she is spearheading the movement to have the sport join the Paralympics by 2028.
“I know there is a huge interest, because we have a world championship event that has over 90 athletes from over 30 countries,” Nichols said. “We are growing and we need more women.”
Photo credits: Shutterstock, Jo Kusumoto, Ana Katarina, Alana Nichols