Sochi or bust

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Alana Nichols won four medals at the 2010 Paralympic Games -- and wants to add to her medal haul in 2014.

When I was growing up, being a jock was my thing. I played three sports -- softball, basketball and volleyball -- until I had to drop basketball my sophomore year of high school because it was too tough time-wise. When I started snowboarding in eighth grade, I hung out with some guy friends who had started skiing at a young age. I got good really fast because they went fast and I had to keep up. Plus, I was always a risk taker. I’d been trampolining my whole life, I liked jumping off of things, and when it came time to start doing tricks and flips on my snowboard, I was all about it.

I spent the whole summer before my senior year planning how I was going to do a backflip on a snowboard. I wasn’t necessarily planning to do it that day in November when we went out to the backcountry (the resorts weren’t even open yet), but after a long day of jumping and trying different tricks, I decided I was ready. I ended up over-rotating and landing on my back on a rock. I broke my spine in three places and was paralyzed on contact.

Courtesy of Alana Nichols

Alana Nichols was the ultimate jock as a kid, excelling in basketball, volleyball, softball and snowboarding.

I remember everything about the fall. It was more shocking than painful, and seemed really loud. I screamed and my friends came running over. The first thing I said was, “Where are my boots and my board?” They told me they were on my feet and that’s when I knew something was terribly wrong. I lay on the snow for an hour before paramedics could get there, and they airlifted me to my hometown hospital, where I had a six-hour reconstructive surgery.

Everything I did and identified with up to that point as an athlete had to do with using my body -- and my legs. I was hoping to go to college on a softball scholarship. All my eggs were in that basket and my biggest fear was how I would ever be myself if I was paralyzed. It was just incredible, at 17 years old, to wrap my head around never being able to walk again.

I didn’t believe it, and kept insisting I’d be walking by Christmas, but the doctor told my grandma (my siblings and I grew up with our grandparents) that she should take my ski pass back. I’d never ski again, of course. My grandma loves to tell that story now, since I’ve become a professional skier!

I finished high school and went to the University of New Mexico, all the time mourning my loss and how my life had turned out. I wasn’t an athlete anymore, and had no prospects of being an athlete. And the hope I’d had of walking again had since dwindled away.

Then one day I happened to go into the gym and see a group of five-on-five wheelchair basketball players playing hard. I thought, “Whoa, this is intense, and these guys are super athletic!” The hoop was the same height, the court the same length, and the whole sport really appealed to me.

I was still feeling bitter about my accident and wasn’t ready to accept my new body. I talked to the athletes and they convinced me to get into a basketball chair and try it out. I tried to shoot a basket, and couldn’t even hit the rim. But that was the turning point for me. I was like, “If they can do it, I’m going to make it happen.”

I started going every Wednesday, and over the course of a couple of months I got better and better and my attitude toward life changed. It didn’t matter that there were people pushing faster than me -- I wanted to beat them. I had goals again.

Playing basketball at the University of New Mexico gave me the confidence to start skiing again through an adaptive skiing program. It was difficult, and I kept falling down all day long. But I knew if I kept getting up I wouldn’t be falling for long. Soon I had my sights set on not one, but two Olympic sports.

I was an alternate for the Paralympic basketball team at the Summer Olympics in Athens, but didn’t go, so then I had four years to develop and train to make the team for Beijing. The 2008 Olympics were a dream come true. We went into the tournament undefeated. There I was, this deer in headlights, playing on the world’s biggest stage, and leaving with a gold medal.

The following fall I went back to the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) and told the head ski coach I wanted to go to the 2010 Olympics. He was basically like, “Yeah right, try 2014.” It was a ridiculous dream, but I spent the next two years in Colorado pursuing that goal. And amazingly, it worked out. In hindsight I think if I’d fully realized I had to win certain races to qualify for the Games, I would have caved under the pressure. But I was just trying to ski fast. I had nothing to lose, and ended up taking four medals home from Vancouver: two golds, a silver and a bronze.

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The alternate to the 2004 Paralympics, Alana Nichols earned gold with the U.S. wheelchair basketball team in Beijing in 2008.

I’ve learned a lot since Vancouver. I’m a different skier when it comes to the technical event, and I make better tactical decisions. Speed-wise, I’m still the risk taker I’ve always been, and that plays to my advantage. But now I’m better at knowing when to take the risks, and when it’s not the right time to throw down.

Right now, I’m coming back from a pretty serious injury up in Mount Hood, Ore., a few months ago. I got stuck in my edge in the soft heavy snow and skied into a boulder going maybe 35 or 40 mph. I hit feet-first and bounced off and caught my shoulder, dislocating it.

It was really scary -- I could have hit my head and had a brain injury. It’s an interesting thing to grapple with, taking these risks when I’m already paralyzed. I mean, when I broke my shoulder this summer I was down to one working limb, which was difficult, to say the least!

But when I made the decision to do a back flip 13 years ago, there were some really 17-year-old things going on. I was being careless and didn’t take the necessary steps to make sure I was in a safe environment. Now, as a ski racer, I try to do everything I can to make sure I’m as safe as possible. There’s a big difference between courage and chaos, and in being able to understand the consequences of my actions. I understand ski racing is dangerous, and I could get injured, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to do what I love for as long as possible.

The Paralympic Games start in Sochi, Russia, on March 7 of next year, and given the shoulder recovery, I’m not necessarily where I wanted to be at this point. My strength and conditioning are still coming along, but I’m dealing with what I have right now.

I’m going to get back on the snow this weekend, so that’s exciting. I’m just going to take it one day at a time, do the races I feel comfortable doing, and from there build toward Sochi. My biggest inspiration is all the people who support me -- my fans, other young women with disabilities and, of course, my family. My brother passed away before Vancouver, but I know he continues to be behind me 100 percent.

Right now, at 30, I’m at a crossroads. I know I’ll go to Sochi, it’s just a matter of getting there. And with a fourth-place finish in London, I’m hungry to get back for more basketball, too. I haven’t made that announcement by any means, but Rio 2016 might be a possibility for me. South Korea in 2018? It’s up in the air. It’s hard to live your life in four-year increments. So for now: Sochi or bust!