Submit

One More, For Me

Aug 11 2017
Photo by
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Photo by
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Alana Nichols
USA Paralympic Team
Aug 11 2017

I took one look at my little sister’s face and flashed back.

After making a huge mistake on arguably one of the most terrifying downhill courses in Paralympic history, I slid out, nearly missing a gate, and in an effort to make up time I got clocked at 70 mph, finished, but still lost the gold by a tenth of a second.

Silver. Who goes for the silver?

My second race, the Super G, was my best chance to get gold at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics.  I pushed out of the start gate, not 100% where I wanted to be mentally, but I’d put a brave face on to hide it. I let my speed build, and as I began to rail around the seventh of the course’s more than 30 gates, I lost my edge pressure and slid out on my bucket — the same mistake I had made in the downhill. As I tried to pop back up (like I did in the downhill), I got bucked by the bumpy terrain and over-corrected. I landed directly on my chin in the snow. KO.

I came to in a helicopter, and started putting things together.

I thought, Okay, I’m in Russia: check.  

I think I won a silver in the downhill the day before: check.

And finally I thought, I must have crashed in the Super -G but… how far did I make it?

Ian Walton/Getty Images

The helicopter took me to the hospital, where I got an MRI. After the MRI, I was in my room, getting stitches. Just as the doctor put the last of the six stitches in my chin, my sisters walked into the room, and I saw their faces.

It was  a mix — shock from the experience, fear of the unknown and concern for my sisters —  that brought me right back to the last time they walked into a hospital room.  It was like I had been paralyzed all over again. Up until this moment, they didn’t know if I was still knocked out, if I was even alive.

That look on my little sister’s face suddenly made me realize something: They’ve been experiencing this with me the whole time — my paralysis, my recovery, everything. All of the pain I had experienced this far, they had experienced too. It suddenly became clear to me that every time I went down the slopes, taking the risks I was born to take, I was subjecting them to terrible, almost posttraumatic stress anxiety.

As much as that shook me to my core, I still couldn’t quit. I passed the concussion tests (really) and went back three days later, stitches covered by a Band-Aid and my neck warmer, and pushed out of the start gate for my last race, the giant slalom.  One more chance to redeem the 2014 Games experience. One last ski race, forever. But instead of redemption, after catching my left outrigger (outriggers are the skis that I use on my arms for balance) I spun a flat ground 360 as I tried to pass over a knoll. I lost a ton of time and finished the race only to endure another defeat: fourth place.

I hadn’t even thought about retirement before the face-plant, but seeing my family go through the slap of another of my near-death experiences, I decided I should take a break from skiing.

That was the defeat that “broke the Paralympian’s back.” I was just so burned out, mentally and physically. I cried.  Skiing used to give me such joy, but after the Games, that joy was gone. It hurt me, but I kept pushing myself to race, because well, that’s what athletes do. “Adapt and Overcome” was my fight song since my accident. Be strong.  I just didn’t realize how hard it was on me, and now on my family.

Maybe I’d leaned too hard on sports. What was originally a coping mechanism for two of the worst moments of my life had instead become a mask for my feelings. Maybe it was time to take the mask off and see who I really was underneath.


In 2000, during winter break in my senior year of high school, I went on a ski trip in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Towards the end of the day and even after a good friend of ours, David Bird, had already taken a nasty fall,  I attempted to do my first backflip on my snowboard. I over-rotated and landed back-first on a rock that was underneath the snow. I was immediately paralyzed upon impact from the waist down.

Alana Nichols

Before the accident, I was an athlete. Sports weren’t just something I did, they were my identity. I played basketball for nine years, snowboarded every chance I had, and had scholarship offers from a few schools to play fastpitch softball. Now … I was the girl in a wheelchair. No one at 17 is equipped to deal with that emotionally. I wasn’t. My friends certainly weren’t. Did one of your high school friends ever lose a family member? Do you remember not really knowing what to say to them? That’s how it was for me and my friends. Instead of having an emotionally open conversation about what happened, we just … didn’t really talk about it. Treated it as if nothing changed.

But everything did change, and I was never more aware of that than during my freshman year of college at the University of New Mexico.

College is where you reinvent yourself. If you didn’t like who you were before, you can just become a new person. You’re in charge of your identity. Except if you’re in a wheelchair. Then you get judged.

I didn’t want to be somebody new. I wanted to be the old me. I desperately wanted people to know that less than a year ago, I was able-bodied. That I used to be an athlete. I easily integrated into groups of people and got along with everyone. But all people saw was my chair, and — I was convinced — made immediate assumptions about me and who I was. I felt so misunderstood, so uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt as though people looked at me like I was diseased or something. I just thought to myself, This is not contagious, and wished they could hear.

I felt as though the accident had completely robbed me of my identity. Without being an athlete, I didn’t know who I was. All I knew was that I was ashamed of the person I was. I didn’t know how to be myself, I didn’t know how to live.

Honestly, I really didn’t want to.

Then one day, about two years after my accident, at my lowest point, I remember I was pushing through the gym with my head down, when a basketball rolled up to my chair. When I looked up, what I saw didn’t really make sense. It was a basketball game, with one major difference: All of the players were in wheelchairs.

I had no idea wheelchair basketball was a sport and definitely didn’t think people with disabilities could be athletic. What I saw that day dropped my jaw and opened my mind. With the amount of wheelchair contact that was going on, it was violent… and I liked it. The game was incredibly skillful, with a 24-second shot clock and a regulation size court and hoop height. It was mind-blowing and made me think that if other people in my situation could play, I didn’t even have an excuse anymore.

When I first started playing, I was equally excited and frustrated. Excited, because I could finally breathe and sweat and be part of a team again. Frustrated, because it just wasn’t the same as able-bodied basketball, and that’s what I wanted to play, that’s still who I wanted to be. There was so much tension between the old me and new me. But the athlete in me, that competitive spirit that pushed me to be the best at anything I did, gradually silenced that frustration. And as that frustration dwindled, my skills developed. A year later, during a juniors tournament at UNM, an athlete from the USA Paralympic team told me about the team and an entire intercollegiate program for disabled sports at the University of Arizona.

I was blown away. Wheelchair basketball is a Paralympic sport? I could go to school on an athletic scholarship after all? I jumped at the chance, and transferred to Arizona in 2003. I also attended an open tryout for the Women’s Paralympic team that same season. There were 40 women there, many of whom had played longer than me. But when they announced the final 14 (12 would make the team, with two alternates), I couldn’t believe it when my name was called as one of the alternates. I didn’t go to the Paralympics in Athens, but I did keep training with the team which developed my game immensely. After graduating from Arizona, I did two years of grad school at the University of Alabama, studying kinesiology and playing on the women’s wheelchair basketball team. And then, in 2008, I was a solid member of the U.S. team in Beijing, where we won gold. Eight years after my accident, after I thought I would never be an athlete again, I had a gold medal hanging around my neck.

Andrew Fielding/USA TODAY SportsAfter the Games, which all seemed like a dream, I had a new sense of confidence in my athletic ability. I wanted more. I knew that if I could accomplish a dream as big as winning gold, anything was possible. Immediately after Beijing, I packed up my things in Alabama and moved to Colorado with a ridiculous dream: competing in the 2010 Paralympic Games for alpine ski racing, just two years later.

It certainly looked as if I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had only been in a mono-ski a couple of times before this and had so much work to do before I was at a Paralympic level. I mean, I still needed a customized mono-ski, which was a huge task to undertake.

Imagine putting your entire lower body into a ski boot and making it fit properly. At first, the bucket seat back was too high for me, which meant I couldn’t angulate my hips to drop my ski edge into the snow. We cut that down multiple times. It was so frustrating to have to make accommodations for my disability. I flashed back to my first time playing wheelchair basketball …  it just wasn’t the same. I was disappointed with the experience before it even started. But my instructors were incredibly patient, and they knew what they were doing.

“Let’s just get you to the top of the mountain,” they said. “If you still want to stop after that, that’s totally fine.”

Reluctantly, I agreed.

We got on the lift and that’s when I felt it: the wind. That cold, crisp, mountain air streaking across my face and racing up my nose. I saw the sun sparkle off the snow. Snow gently landed all over my body and I realized … I still get to do this. I still get to ski.

It wasn’t the same, and it wasn’t easy. That first day was a never-ending pattern of sliding downhill, falling, then getting picked back up by my coach. Over and over. But it was still skiing, and I didn’t quit. I got better with every fall and slid further each time I got up. By the end of my first season I had won a few North American races and taken the downhill title at US Adaptive Nationals. My mind was focused on the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, and I was showing a lot of potential for making this dream come true.

And then, while I was speeding towards Vancouver, on the up and up… my heart got shattered. Again.

One of the best parts of moving to Colorado was being closer to my brother, D.J. He’d always been my biggest fan and supporter, whether it was in little league softball or when I started training for the 2010 Winter Paralympics. He was just authentically happy for my successes and shared in my struggles.

In June of 2009, he was murdered. It’s a long, hard story to tell, but in short, my brother crossed the wrong person and that person took his life.

It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. Unspeakable. Unimaginable. It threw me into another dark spiral. Darker even than some of my worst days after my paralysis. Life just didn’t matter anymore. But rather than dealing with it, I mean truly coming to terms with what had happened — as we went through the aftermath, the funeral, and the eventual trial — I turned again to sports as a coping mechanism. Skiing was my purpose, and whether it distracted me or motivated me, it kept me moving forward. During this time, part of me felt numb and denied my feelings. Because of that, I was able to put on a brave face and move forward, all the way to Vancouver.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

But in the second run of my giant slalom race, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I was sitting in first place by over a second, which is a pretty substantial lead in ski racing. As I was getting ready to push out of the gate I suddenly became overwhelmed with emotion, and seconds before I was supposed to race, I just started wailing. Crying from out of nowhere had been pretty normal for me for the past seven months. Grief will do that to you. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, at the most inconvenient times. Like it was doing now.

I couldn’t stop crying, no matter what I tried. I couldn’t get myself together. All I could do was pray to my brother. I took a deep breath and said, “You gotta take this one for me.”

I pushed out of the start gate and the next thing I knew I was at the bottom, still crying.

I don’t remember anything that happened in between. Not a single turn or gate.  I do remember looking up at the leader board through my blurry goggles after my run and seeing my name on top. I cried harder. It wasn’t a cute cry, that’s for sure. Everything just came pouring out of me — my grief, my anger, the sacrifices I had made to get there. I like to call it a spiritual cry.

That night, I slept with my medal around my neck. When I woke up the next morning, part of me was surprised to see it was still there, that I hadn’t just dreamed the entire thing. And for a moment, I laid there and tried to remember every last detail, down to the American flag waving in the rain and each word of the national anthem as all my teammates and coaches sang along with me. I didn’t have much time to process, though. I had another race to prepare for.

Looking back, that had been kind of the theme of my life ever since I discovered wheelchair basketball. Just charge on. There was always something next, always another race or sport, another trip, another person to inspire. And while I’m beyond grateful for everything I’ve accomplished, the great fortune and favor that came my way in Vancouver and all of the doors that have opened up since, I also know the constant sacrifices I made for them have worn me down and put me in a place where I wasn’t truly loving myself.

It took a trip to Hawaii right after Sochi and — sorry I’m about to be cliché – “salt water therapy” to really help me see things differently.

When I was in Hawaii, I came across an organization called Access Surf that takes people with disabilities surfing. Within no time, I found myself  sitting on top of a waveski in the middle of the ocean, catching my first wave. I’m not going to lie: I got my ass kicked as I learned how to surf. I fell off the board more times than I can count, got hit in the ribs and the back, just generally feeling like I was in a massive washing machine of wave, and I loved it!

I’ll never forget catching my first wave. It wasn’t big and it certainly wasn’t the longest ride I’ve had, but it was … transformational. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and I was filled with gratitude. Surfing was something I always wanted to do before my accident but I never had the opportunity. I left that day to go eat tacos, battered and beat up, but so, so happy. My once downtrodden athletic soul was revitalized.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that surfing has been life changing for me. I want so badly for it to be a Paralympic sport, because the more exposure a sport gets, the more people participate, and I want as many people as possible to experience the transformation I have. There’s just something about sitting in a lineup in that vast ocean, waiting for a wave, that forces introspection (being in your mid-30s will also do that). Every wave is different, and you have to be completely present as you surf, there’s no other way. Surfing has given me a calmer mindset and an easier rhythm to move between intense bursts of competitiveness and restful moments. It’s easier, now, to recover and prepare for the next burst.

Since that trip, and now that I’ve surfed for almost four  years, I feel like a completely different person. I’ve learned more about loving myself. I don’t have to sacrifice who I am to make others more comfortable.  I’m deeply grateful and genuinely love my life.

Every now and again someone I meet will say “Wow, I thought my life was terrible, until I met you,” (yes, people have actually said that to me), and I smile because I know my life is awesome. I ski, I surf, I kayak, I get to travel around the world and inspire people to be their best selves. I am so blessed.

This April, I went on a trip to southern Colorado to ski Silverton Mountain, an all-extreme terrain with nothing easier than double black runs. I was the first mono-skier to ski Silverton and this was my second time on this mountain.  As I finished the last run of the day, on a route called Cabins, I started tearing up. Not because I was sad or letting out my frustrations, but because I was immensely happy. I realized that I still loved this sport, to my very core, and that I wasn’t finished. I didn’t get to leave ski racing as the person I wanted to be so I’m embracing the opportunity in front of me and hoping to race in the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang. My Paralympic journey started when I broke my back on a mountain. It’s going to end there, too. On my terms.

This comeback is about being my best athletic self. It’s about honoring the journey I’ve been on to get to where I am now as a whole-hearted person and as an ever-evolving athlete. It’s an opportunity to love myself, perform my best and enjoy the process.

It’s about … me. In surfing or skiing when it’s time to call it… we usually all want “one more” and now I want One More, for me.

Alana Nichols
USA Paralympic Team