Growing up in northern New Mexico, Alana Nichols was a typical high school athlete with big dreams of earning a softball scholarship to college. But during an early-winter snowboarding trip in November of 2000, Alana attempted a back flip, over-rotated and landed back-first on a rock, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down at impact. Losing her focus and her athlete identity, Alana wandered for a few years before finding the sport that would provide a college athletic scholarship and her first Paralympic gold medal – wheelchair basketball. 13 years after that fateful flip, Alana is the first American woman to win Olympic or Paralympic gold medals in both the Winter and Summer Games, and she’s not done just yet. We sat down with Alana to learn more about her journey, her second chance at sports and why our mission matters to her.
Women’s Sports Foundation: Tell me a little about the snowboarding accident from which you became paralyzed. What was your sports participation like before November 19, 2000, when you broke your back?
Alana Nichols: I started sports when I was five and ended up playing three sports for the majority of my life. In high school, I played volleyball, basketball and softball – softball being my main sport, my first love. I was working toward a softball scholarship to college when, during my senior year of high school, I broke my back during a snowboarding accident.
I have always been a daredevil and someone who likes to push my limits to challenge the boys. I had been preparing to flip a backflip on my snowboard all summer – it was going to be my next big thing. On November 19, 2000, we were back country skiing and snowboarding and we had not probed for rocks where we were actually jumping. It was late in the day and I was pretty tired, but being 17, I just couldn’t help myself. I really wanted to try that jump – I was going to do it. In the air, I over-rotated and did more like a one-and-a-half flip, landing on my back. I would have been fine, but there were rocks right underneath the surface of the snow. I broke my back in three places and was paralyzed upon impact.
Being 17 and identifying as an athlete my entire life, I was at a loss for what to do after the accident. I had two weeks in the hospital when I tried to put it all together. When the doctor told me I probably would never regain the use of my legs, that moment was earth-shattering. I had all my eggs in my athletics basket. I was planning on going to college on a softball scholarship. I just didn’t know who I was anymore or what I was going to do with my life.
WSF: You’ve said that playing sports helped you recover from your accident. Can you tell me more about that?
AN: I was really depressed for the two years following my accident. I needed to sweat, I needed to work hard, I needed to compete like I had always done, but I couldn’t. So I went to college and was basically a drone for the two years that I was attending the University of New Mexico.
And then I ran into wheelchair basketball. There was a group of people playing in the gym at school, and I rolled in. When I saw these people playing I was stunned. Wheelchair basketball is a really awesome, competitive sport and I had no idea — I could barely believe my eyes. I played that day and every Wednesday for about a year. I then met another woman who was on the U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team and she told me about a program at the University of Arizona. She said there was potential for me to get a scholarship to play – and get my undergraduate degree – just like I had planned to do all of my life.
I played ball for the U of A for three years, but more importantly during that time, my entire life was changing for the better. After the accident, I lost my focus and my identify. When I became an athlete again I was able to look at all the opportunities before me, all the things I could do playing wheelchair basketball, and it was like I was back in high school again.
Recreational therapy is so real for anyone who has a life-changing accident but especially important for people like me who were athletes before.
WSF: A few weeks ago, the Office on Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter clarifying school’s obligations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide extracurricular athletic opportunities for students with disabilities. It was a major milestone. Why is it important to you that student athletes with disabilities have the chance to compete in high school…and beyond?
AN: Sports are so important for people in so many different ways. People benefit as humans from sport. You learn leadership skills, how to excel at something, you learn how to set goals and accomplish them. If people with disabilities aren’t given the chance to play sports, then they will never really be able to develop those life skills and be the best person they can be.
WSF: You are the first American woman to win Olympic or Paralympic golds in both a winter and summer sport. What are some of the differences between wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing that you need to be successful?
AN: There are a lot of similarities and there are some specific differences. Both sports are founded in discipline. You have to learn the foundational skills and you have to practice them right, over and over and over. In wheelchair basketball, I need a lot of cardio strength and I need to be in really good condition to push up and down a court for 40-minute games. In alpine skiing, your cardio strength isn’t as important as your speed for a minute-and-a-half long race. While I am training differently for each sport, when it comes down to it, the discipline factor and the mental skill set are the same.
WSF: We are proud to call you a member of the WSF family, having you as a guest at many Annual Salutes to Women in Sports in the past. Why is our mission important to you?
AN: The Women’s Sports Foundation mission is so important to me. When I first started getting involved, I was so empowered, so encouraged by seeing girls and women in sports being promoted and celebrated. It was really what I needed to feel energized and inspired to push on in my sports
The WSF’s movement is also special to me as an athlete with a disability because for a very long time, female athletes were a minority. To see the progress and change that has happened because of the work of the Women’s Sports Foundation really gives me hope that one day, with the right leadership and the right support in place, anything is possible. I hope that one day athletes with disabilities will be the benefactors of the same type of change that female athletes have experienced.