In an effort to tell the untold stories of girls and women in sport, I present the story of Alana Nichols—granddaughter, daughter, sister, and friend—a woman who has overcome physical odds and triumphed as not only a Gold medal-winning Paralympian in both the Summer and Winter Games—the lone American woman to do so—but also as a leader in the adaptive sport movement. I hope her story inspires you that anything is possible. That said, I dedicate this post to those who have inspired and influenced Alana along her journey and in particular her Grandma— Joan Vilven—and brother, D.J. Nichols (29), who died unexpectedly in June 2009.
It’s November 19, 2000 and Alana Nichols is a senior in high school skiing in the Colorado backcountry with her friends. Although not new to the sport of snowboarding, she will be the first to tell you that she was getting good, having been boarding for five years, but not a professional by any means. And, this is where my interview begins…
Jillian (J): If you don’t mind, tell me about your accident and your athletic experience prior to it…
Alana (A): … I started playing sports at five years old. My grandma signed me up for T-ball … and I think there was just a love of sport from the very beginning …, I reacted in such a way that my spirit knew it, I loved it! And, I was so competitive … I was always like put me in. … I loved to bat, I loved to play, and I loved to run. I then started basketball and volleyball in the 4th grade and I played year-round sports ever since … until I broke my back …, so I was very much wrapped up [in sports] …my identity was as an athlete.
The day I broke my back I was definitely pushing the limits, and I think that’s what makes a good athlete—always trying something, within reason that is out of your comfort zone. Unfortunately when I broke my back—I can say this now— … it was an ill-advised decision. … I decided I was going to flip a back flip for the first time. It was early in the season … and we were just being careless. … I don’t like to pull anymore meaning out of it then there really is but I do know I’m always aware of my energy now as an athlete, especially as a ski racer, I really try to make decisions based on how I’m feeling. Like towards the end of the day, the day of my accident I was tired and I hadn’t even eaten … and I just wasn’t sharp. If I had thought about what I was doing as something of huge consequence, I probably would have said that’s a bad idea but … I own that now, because I feel I have learned so much from it.
My accident was a huge learning experience. I don’t blame myself anymore. … I hated myself for what I did to my body and what I had done to my life. Because I had really thought at that moment that I had ruined my chance to live … and I didn’t have anyone else to blame … it was all my decision. It’s been a long process of trying to take ownership of that while also making the most of what I do have … that I do have half a body that works and there are some people that don’t. I can get in my car and I can go where I want and I can wake up and get myself out of bed and dress myself. I’m nine years post injury now and I’ve gained a huge amount of perspective as a person with a disability and as a person that’s really blessed.
(J): What has allowed you to stay positive and look forward and as you were saying, take ownership?
(A): … at 17 that’s just something everyone is trying to learn regardless of trying to have to deal with a new disability or anything. … I grew up in a family where I wasn’t really given any excuses or any handouts. My grandma raised me. …she gave me so much freedom to behave like I wanted to and I knew that no one else was going to do it for me. When I broke my back, my grandma wasn’t going to step in and make everything better, she helped a great deal, but she wasn’t going to come in and enable me to be disabled. She wasn’t going to let me just hang out. … I just knew … it was up to me to do what I can with what I was left with. That’s one thing that kept me really positive. It’s interesting because when I first become disabled I compare it to being reborn because I literally had to learn how to sit-up again. … And then, I had to learn how to get from my bed to my wheelchair and … there were days I made zero progress and actually moved backwards and I ended up crying the whole day and I threw my hands in the air. Then there were also days … I was like, “Okay, this is the task at hand” and I started making progress. That’s what started things moving and sort of kept me positive.
(J): You’ve mentioned your grandmother a few times, I’m wondering if there is anything specifically you want to say about her influence on you as well as what motivates you?
(A): My grandma … she’s just one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. I say that partly because she’s taken on some huge challenges in her life, including raising me and my sisters after my mom couldn’t do it. I hate to admit but I was not the easiest kid to raise but she hung in there. She’s just been such a rock. I know that whatever happens to me that she would be able to deal with it … she’s so strong like that.… I learned a lot of that—strength and focusing on the task at hand—from her. When I broke my back, I knew what I needed to do. There was never really an option in my head that I couldn’t do it. It was like I’m doing this, I will do this. My grandma was such a positive presence in my life at that time because that’s what she had always done. Her strong-mindedness is what really inspired me to be the same way. She brought that presence of you will and that’s what inspired me.
(J): Changing directions slightly, how did you transition from trying to sit-up in bed to actually getting back into athletics and being an athlete in the adaptive sport of wheelchair basketball?
(A): Ohh, the transition wasn’t easy and being an athlete yourself, you might be able to relate to not being able to do what you want to do and when I was first introduced to wheelchair sports I had this deep desire to be moving but being in a wheelchair just didn’t allow for that. I hadn’t had cardio in so long I needed to get my heartbeat going. I needed to sweat. That was the thing that I was itching to do. I ended up playing wheelchair softball, which was my first adapted experience in sport and it was a terrible one. I was a softball player prior to my accident. It was my main sport and I was on par to go to college and play collegiate softball, … so naturally people thought I should try out wheelchair softball when I learned what wheelchair softball was it broke my heart because you play in a wheelchair first of all, you don’t use a glove you use a big rag ball and you hit with one hand. And I was like, “No, this is nothing like what I used to do and it doesn’t compare and I hate it.” I cried and it was devastating because it just highlighted that I was in a wheelchair and I couldn’t play softball anymore. There was a good year between that day I tried wheelchair softball and I was introduced to wheelchair basketball. During that year I was just trying to figure out life, what am I going to do? Because I had figured wheelchair sports were going to suck all-around.
I got introduced to wheelchair basketball it was something challenging for me because a basketball wheelchair, it allows you to move fast. It has wheels that are slanted. It has a wheel in the back so that you don’t fall backwards. It has straps that you hook up into your hips and at your knees, so you’re like connected to this wheelchair and … it’s technically a wheelchair person’s equivalent to running and I loved it. I’m going fast and I’m moving myself. That was when I first got cardio and I was sweating, this is awesome. It was also the first time that I met other women in wheelchairs that were also athletes. All these things came together for me… we can compete again, we can challenge each other and get better, we can sweat, we can win games, and we can compete against other basketball teams, including all men’s teams and beat them too. I was like, let’s do this. That’s when my life really changed because like I said before I was an athlete all my life and my identity was so wrapped up in that, so when I found wheelchair basketball, I really found a part of my identity again. In a different way but in a way that I could be proud of since sport does so much for your psyche and you confidence and for your purpose and meaning, so I just took off.
I found out about this team in Arizona that was an all women’s team that was associated with the University of Arizona and I … ended up moving there a week and half before school started by junior year in college. I had been at the University of New Mexico before that, which is where I found out about wheelchair basketball. When I went to the University of Arizona was when I first got into a basketball chair. For nine months, I learned the game of wheelchair basketball. That was one of the things that rehabilitated me more than any amount of time in a physical therapy or occupational therapy setting. These are able body people who are trying to teach me how to be in a wheelchair and they just can’t do it the same as another woman my age who has had her disability longer than me and was doing it and trying her hardest and was enjoying her life because she had found sport as well. That’s when my life changed. I was like I can love life now. It was still really hard because I have to live life outside of wheelchair basketball and I have to be that girl in the grocery store who’s parents of these little kids will grab their kid out of the way because I’m so scary because I’m in a wheelchair. I’m totally normal, I’m just misunderstood here. I’m that girl and they don’t understand that I was once an able body person yet I could just escape into this wheelchair basketball world where I was equal. It gave me opportunities to make progress and making the US team my first year playing was huge and just made me want to know more and play more and work harder.
(J): Is there anything you want to say about that experience in terms of being on the Olympic team and winning a gold medal…the first time?
(A): … I said this already but the sport [wheelchair basketball] changed my life, period. … It so important to me to help people understand that people with disabilities are still athletes and we’re still capable of doing so much and the opportunities we have in this country to be part of a disabled sports team like a US national team is huge. I look back at how it all played out and I didn’t realize what I was working towards at the time but once I made that US team all these doors opened. I think I understood the weight of what just had happened because my first tryout I made the US team as an alternate to the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games and the moment was surreal because it was my first year and it had been a dream of mine to do that. And it wasn’t so much a dream of mine to go to Athens because I had just started playing. It was a dream of mine to be involved with the most elite wheelchair athletes in the country, so that was perfect for me because I worked hard while those girls were working towards Athens. I was working just as hard because I may or may not have gotten called to go. So I had to keep myself accountable in that way and that season was such a great time for me because I laid that foundation for hard work. I never knew if they were going to call me or not but I needed to be prepared and what were my standards going to be in terms of preparation, so I just worked my butt of that year. That really prepared me to stay on the team until the 2006 World Championships in Amsterdam, which was my first international basketball competition. We ended up getting the silver against Canada, which stands out because I hate to lose.
But then playing and working towards Beijing for a whole five years was one of the coolest goals I had ever set out to do and when we did win that gold it was so valuable to me because of how much work I had put into it and it was just a relief because of all the anticipation going into it. When we were in Beijing for the games we had gone into that tournament undefeated. … we ended up winning the gold on an undefeated season. Wow, such a moment of joy and relief all at the same time like I explain it to people that it was more relieving than it was like, “Yeah, we just won a gold medal!” I was like, “Sweet, it’s over.” It was so hard but also this great sense of accomplishment. And one thing, I love this quote, I don’t know who says it but it’s written in the cafeteria of the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. It says something like, “What is a gold medal? It’s a trinket, it’s a material object but what matters is the great friends you make along the way and the growth that you make in your own athletic career and that’s what makes what a gold medal is.” … the gold medal is this physical expression of the work that I’ve done and the experience that I have had and I love that it’s gold. I love that but more importantly, it’s about the people that helped me grow not only as an athlete but also as a woman with a disability and someone that can be proud to represent her country and also proud to be a person with a disability that’s promoting athleticism.
To be continued…
Check out the next post of Just Jillian… for the rest of my interview with Alana Nichols as we discuss her road from the court to the slopes and what’s next for her now that she has won four medals in the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games along with numerous achievements (see below) and once in a lifetime experiences under her belt.
- 2010 Adaptive Athlete of the Year Award— U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA)
- 2010, March: USOC Athlete of the Month
- 2010: Gold medal, Giant Slalom – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
- 2010: Gold medal, downhill – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
- 2010: Silver medal, Super G – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
- 2010: Bronze medal, Slalom – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
- 2010: First place, downhill- World Cup, Sestriere, Italy
- 2010: Second place, Super Combined- World Cup, Sestriere, Italy
- 2010: Third place, Super G- World Cup, Sestriere, Italy
- 2009: First place, downhill – U.S. Adaptive Nationals
- 2009: Third place, Super combined – U.S. Adaptive Nationals
- 2008: Gold medal, wheelchair basketball – Paralympic Games, Beijing, China