Paralympic drama

Ian Walton/Getty Images

Alana Nichols won the sitting downhill silver at the 2014 Paralympics, just missing gold by a little over a tenth of a second.

Usually when I crash on skis I know exactly what happened. It’s like slow motion, and I can see it all going wrong. But at the Sochi Paralympics, everything happened so fast during the super-G race that I don’t even know what occurred. I hit a bump, caught the edge of my ski and it felt like someone picked up the back of my ski and dumped me on my face. One minute I was skiing down the mountain, and the next thing I knew I was regaining consciousness in a helicopter.

These Paralympic Games were definitely not boring.

The conditions in Sochi were pretty difficult. Whenever there’s a lot of moisture in the air (which there is in Sochi, given it’s springtime and right next to the Black Sea), every rut gets exaggerated every time someone skis over it. So that leaves a lot of what we call “microterrain”— ruts that able-bodied skiers are able to adjust to with their ankles, knees and hips.

But we monoskiers are at the mercy of our equipment. Our shocks compress and rebound, but they aren’t designed to react as aggressively as the snow in Russia demanded. Once your shocks compress and rebound so many times, they get tighter -- and there’s no room for error.

I’d actually thought I was going to crash in the first event of the Games, downhill skiing. I’d won the second practice run by four seconds, so I was feeling pretty confident going into the gold-medal run. But about a quarter of the way through the course, I made a big mistake. My edge disconnected from the snow and that left me kind of sliding on my seat (which is what I call my bucket).

Courtesy Alana Nichols

Alana Nichols' crash in the super-G resulted in a concussion, dislocated jaw and stitches in her chin.

I was sliding for what felt like an eternity. Nine times out of 10, when you’re sliding on your bucket, you’re going to crash. But this time, I was able to get my ski to hook back up and I just made a gate I almost missed.

I didn’t stop, but it was a massive mistake and I knew I had to make up a lot of time. I had been planning on skiing that downhill run for four years and didn’t want to leave anything on the snow. I ended up reaching 75 mph, and when I finished my time was pretty close to my training times!

I was the first one out of the gate, though, so I had to wait and see what everyone else would do. Unfortunately, my biggest competitor, three-time world champion Anna Schaffelhuber of Germany, beat me by just 0.14 seconds.

In ordinary circumstances, I would have felt like I’d lost the gold. But in this race I felt like I won that silver. It took some time to come to terms with it after the great training runs I’d had, but considering how the race went down, I was really happy. It’s all about perspective.

After that, we had a day off before the super-G, and I went into that race feeling optimistic: another day, another race and another shot at gold. But that’s when I made it about 8/10ths of the way down when another mistake sent me crashing straight into the mountain.

I had a pretty good laceration on my chin and had dislocated my jaw. I’d never been knocked out before, and it was an intense experience. I didn’t even know what race I was in -- I knew I was in Sochi, but I didn’t know if it was downhill or super-G, and I had to ask my coach to help me piece things back together.

But after my face got all stitched up and I had some time to process, I realized how incredibly lucky I was.

That would have been a perfect excuse to just call it, to be done with the Sochi Games. But I’m too much of a competitor. I knew my body was in great shape, and I was feeling fine. It was amazing, actually, but I think because I went limp after I was knocked out, the fall was less damaging to my body.

It was a stressful and difficult decision to make after having the worst concussion of my life. I didn’t want to risk my brain health, but I wanted to race again. I took three days off, not by my choice, but because of the doctors’ decision.

Courtesy of Alana Nichols

Alana Nichols' sisters Jovan (left) and Julianne were in Sochi to support her -- on the slopes and during her hospital stay.

It was hard to sit back and watch the super combined and slalom races go off without me, but it wasn’t up to me. With concussions, you’re allowed to return to play after four days of being symptom-free. And after four days with no headaches, the doctors and I decided I could compete in the giant slalom race.

I had to be honest about how I felt and about whether it was worth it, and that was a hard decision. I went skiing the day before the giant slalom, and I felt pretty good. I was a little gun-shy, but I decided I would ski conservatively in the first run and see how it went. I still couldn’t help but be an athlete and be disappointed when I saw it wasn’t a very fast time, but I knew I had to be kind to myself.

The second run would be the last of my Paralympics, and I knew I wanted to go after it. I was skiing really well, preparing to go down the steepest pitch, and I overlooked one really insignificant gate. I basically punched the gate with my outrigger (the ski on my arm) and it spun me around. Usually if you catch a rigger you slide out and you’re done. I spun a full 360 degrees and got back on the course and to the bottom, missing the bronze by a tenth of a second.

I mean, seriously? I missed the gold in the downhill by 0.14 after a huge mistake, and then I missed the bronze by a tenth? I was so frustrated -- I’d tried so hard and it hadn’t worked out.

I was feeling pretty emotional. I was absolutely disappointed, but also just so proud of myself. I didn’t come back in that final race for anybody else. Not for my fans, or even my family -- they definitely didn’t want me back out there! No, I wanted to go race one more time just for me.

After all was said and done, I’m really glad I did it. And I’m not done for the season yet -- I’m heading to Park City, Utah, for the U.S. Nationals, the last races of the year. Then I’ll go to D.C. for the Olympic and Paralympic White House visit. It’s such a fun event where everybody gets to come back together after leaving Russia on a total high. It would be an incredible honor to do even once in a lifetime, and this will be my fourth visit!

Four years ago, after the Vancouver Paralympics, I had the honor of going to an elementary school with Michelle Obama to promote her Let’s Move! fitness initiative. We rode in her motorcade from the White House in black cars going 55 to 60 mph down residential streets, surrounded by Secret Service. We’re talking a legit formal White House outing.

So then when I got to meet President Obama and shake his hand at the official athletes’ visit, Michelle told him about the school visit we had done. Well let’s just say that extended his handshake by about two minutes. I was in awe!

I’m not expecting such a long handshake this time around, but the White House visit will definitely cap off this whirlwind Paralympics.

Though you never wish for drama, I learned a lot in Sochi. And when all is said and done, I’d call myself a pretty lucky girl.