She can't move her legs, but she rocks the slopes Alana Nichols races to win her silver medal in the women's downhill, sitting skiing event at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia (AP photos)
She can't move her legs, but she rocks the slopes
Lexile

Paralympian Alana Nichols calls them "pinch-me moments," when she can't quite believe she is actually in a particular situation.

Like when she rolled down the red carpet at the ESPY Awards or rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Or when she spoke at schools for Michelle Obama and spent the day traveling in a motorcade with the first lady.

And especially when she received her gold medal in wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. And again after capturing two more golds in sit-skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

All this, she never could've imagined after being paralyzed from the waist down in 2000 while attempting a backflip on her snowboard.

That's why when she talks to disabled children, her message never wavers: This is just the beginning.

Maybe she didn't buy that idea back then, but she embraces it now.

These days, the 31-year-old Nichols is even taking on a new challenge, sprint kayak racing, which will make its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. She is retiring from basketball and putting her skiing career on hold in an effort to make the team.

"When you believe in something, it creates the possible," said Nichols, who lives in Denver. "That's the most important thing imagining it can happen."

Her life was altered on Nov. 19, 2000. All that summer she imagined doing a backflip on her snowboard. So when snow blanketed the mountain near Durango, Colorado, she eagerly headed into the backcountry.

On her first try, Nichols over-rotated and landed on rocks, shattering her spine in three places. Emergency workers had to airlift her out, and she went through months of rehab, including a stint at Craig Hospital in Denver. That is where six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken-Rouen went after being paralyzed from the waist down following an all-terrain vehicle crash.

Van Dyken-Rouen said one of the challenging parts of her rehab process was getting back into the pool, because it was so familiar to her.

For Nichols, it was softball. She tried to play adaptive softball, but it wasn't the same.

Fast forward to the fall of 2002. She was taking classes at the University of New Mexico and happened to take a short cut through the gym when she saw a group of wheelchair athletes playing 5-on-5 basketball. Not just playing, but playing fierce and fouling hard.

Perfect for her.

"All of a sudden, I didn't have an excuse to be bummed out and lazy," she said. "I was challenged."

She quickly picked up the game, making the 2004 Paralympics team as an alternate. She got her shot in Beijing in 2008. She was a shooting guard who charged down the lane with no fear.

While training for Beijing, a thought hit her. Why not try skiing, too? On winter breaks from basketball, she trained on her mono-ski back in Durango, about a 45-minute commute from her hometown of Farmington, New Mexico.

One day, she vocalized her aspirations to ski coaches, saying she wanted to train even more aggressively to make the Vancouver squad.

"As any logical person would, they said that wasn't possible, having only had limited days under my belt," she recalled. "But I had a childlike faith I could do it."

She did, too, winning two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in Vancouver.

She was back in the starting gates for the Sochi Games last winter, taking silver in the downhill. She then wiped out in the super-G and ended up taking a helicopter ride to the hospital to fix a dislocated jaw and get six stitches in her chin.

A few days later, she returned for the giant slalom and took fourth despite catching an edge and doing a 360-degree turn on the course.

That kind of resolve along with all her speaking engagements recently earned her induction into the "Superman Hall of Heroes," which honors people who make a difference in the lives of others each day. Former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal is a member. So is the late Christopher Reeve, who played the "Man of Steel" and was paralyzed in an equestrian competition in 1995.

This summer, Nichols spent some time in Hawaii "soul searching" about her athletic career. While there, she dabbled in surfing.

Turns out, she was a natural, winning the first contest she entered.

Since surfing isn't a Paralympic event not yet, anyway she took up the closest thing: paddle racing, with the hope of making the team in the sprint events. She doesn't have her own kayak she's working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation to get one so she spends most of her time building up endurance in the gym.

And when she's not training, she's traveling. Here's just a small example of her jam-packed schedule: In San Diego last weekend for a triathlon and to speak to kids with disabilities. Then, off to New York for a Nike event and back West to Seattle for a kayak paddle race before finally heading home.

"When you're newly disabled, you think life's over," Nichols said. "But when you believe in your possibilities, anything can happen.

"I've had a lot of pinch-me moments."

Critical thinking challenge: How was seeing wheelchair athletes playing basketball a turning point for Alana, and why?

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COMMENTS (105)
  • levenicel-Orv
    10/27/2014 - 12:05 p.m.

    that is amazing how she cant move her legs but can stuil do this stuff want other poeple can't do she had to go to alot of traynig

  • 8GOMMAHANENE-Flo
    10/27/2014 - 12:29 p.m.

    seeing wheelchair athletes playing basketball a turning point for Alana because this motivates her to do things that she wouldve been able to do even if she wasnt paralyzed

  • ateyal-Orv
    10/27/2014 - 12:53 p.m.

    she is so an inspiration to me that's how you know that any Bordie can do anything i want to be a singer that can happen i know it you can do anything anything can happen

  • BrynnDani
    10/27/2014 - 01:35 p.m.

    I was very moved while reading this story. I ca not fathom the amount of courage it would take to get back on the slopes after enduring such a horrific accident there. She has an amazing amount of determination and she never lost hope. Sticking with sports after such a terrible accident and dedicating hours of her life to practice has really shown how much passion she feels towards sports.

  • BaileyFor
    10/27/2014 - 04:28 p.m.

    I think seeing athletes in wheelchairs helped Alana overcome her disability by showing her that you can triumph over just about anything.This is helpful to anyone with a disability. It inspires them.

  • ambercollis15
    10/27/2014 - 08:22 p.m.

    She is so cool that she is paralyzed But can be an amazing athlete. If I ever get paralyzed I wish I was half as good as her. If you can wish it, you must will it, if you will it it will be yours. That's how I picture her being a positive person who wants to have fun and achieve her goals

  • ambercollis15
    10/27/2014 - 08:23 p.m.

    She is so cool that she is paralyzed But can be an amazing athlete. If I ever get paralyzed I wish I was half as good as her. If you can wish it, you must will it, if you will it it will be yours. That's how I picture her being a positive person who wants to have fun and achieve her goals

  • MaggieM-3
    10/27/2014 - 09:18 p.m.

    Alana Nichols is a Paralympic athlete and has won gold metals in both basketball and skiing. On November 9 2000, Alana was skiing and landed on rocks shattering her spine in three places and becoming paralyzed for her waist down. She played softball before her injury but after her injury it wasn't the same. Two years later she saw a group of wheel chair athletes playing basketball and became inspired. She started playing and made the 2004 Paralympic team as an alternate and played in 2008 winning a gold medal. She also wanted to try skiing and ended up making the Paralympic team and winning two gold metals in Vancouver. Currently Nichols is training to make the Paralympic paddle racing team. She recently was inducted to the "Superman Hall of Heroes," a group that recognizes people for changing lives daily.
    I think that this is really inspiring. I am so amazed at technology and its ability to make the lives of disabled people so comfortable. Also I was wondering how do you play softball if you are paralyzed from the waist down.

  • Amy2005
    10/28/2014 - 11:41 a.m.

    That's Amazing!!! How do you ski and not move your legs??? That's just Awesome! It would be so fun to meet her. I would love to watch her ski too! but that's just AMAZING!!!

  • 21aavizi
    10/28/2014 - 12:21 p.m.

    I think she is brave for skiing while being paralyzed because I don't think that I could do anything anymore if I found out that I'm paralyzed. I also think that she is pretty cool for winning more than 1 gold medal, because it takes years to win as many as she did. And it is also really cool that she plays basketball in a wheel-chair, personally, I think it would be a really big challenge for me. But that's just my opinion.

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