Now that I have shared Alana’s story prior to the 2010 Winter Paralympics, what follows is the remainder of my interview with her, which focuses on her journey to the games, her experience of winging her first gold medal of the games, and what’s next…
Jillian (J): Switching gears tell me about your road from the court to the slopes.
Alana (A): That was a wild ride … I can’t say exactly when I had this ridiculous dream of going to Beijing and then immediately turning around and trying to go to Vancouver. I can’t pinpoint the day that it happened but I remember the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Torino were happening and while watching … having that itch to be a part of it. I had always kept it on the backburner since I’ve always gone skiing while I was playing basketball … I would maybe get 5-7 days in a season. In my mind, I was working toward the Winter Paralympics every time. I wanted to get better right then and that’s just the athlete mentality in that I want to master this [ski racing] or whatever it is.
And so, that’s when I think the whole road started to the Vancouver Games started. The journey officially began immediately after Beijing, when I called up the coach—Erik Petersen at the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park and I shared that I wanted to come visit because I wanted to be a ski racer. He was like, “Well, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If you can make it out here, we would love to have you in our program.” I actually … did a visit out to his program right before I left for Beijing and we sat down for lunch. … It was then that I told him I had never even seen ski racing, I mean technically I had but I didn’t know anything about it; however, it was my goal to go to Vancouver in 2010. And he looked at me and said, “Umm…are you sure about that? You might want to set your sights on the 2014 Games in Sochi. I was like, “Nah, I think I want to go to Vancouver.” And [I could tell he was thinking], “this is girl crazy.” And he hadn’t seen me ski or anything at that point.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what I was doing but I did know that I had set the bar really high and that I had this ridiculous dream. I say ridiculous because if you look at it on paper it’s ridiculous. You can’t just do that, but it turns out that everything I was doing athletically for wheelchair basketball was preparing me to be a monoskier. My core, my obliques, my upper body, and some of the hip movements you have to have in wheelchair basketball is exactly like mono-skiing, so I was technically training for the Vancouver Games when I started playing wheelchair basketball in 2003.
My coach pretty much shut me down and I was like, “Well, we’ll see how that works out.” It was a year and half ago, … October 2008, when I first started monoski racing and I was not even getting on the lift by myself. I was falling off every time—I’d fall, get back up, fall, etc. I had skied a fair good bit before I moved to Winter Park, but I had never skied independently because I always had an instructor that skied behind me at the very least. I was really just a big pile of rawness. In fact, … the first day I went skiing with my coach—the coach from NSCD—he didn’t really know where I was at as a skier and basically said, “Okay, go ahead a take a couple of warm-up runs and we’ll see you around noon.” And, I was like, “Wait a minute, what do you mean? By myself, right now? Like get on the lift by myself? I can’t, what are you doing?” He pretty much threw me out of the nest and that was probably the best thing I could have asked for/had done for me because it really forced me to fend for myself and learn how to get on the lift after I had fallen off six times a day.
In other words, my first season in Winter Park at NSCD was a whole lot of work. I was fortunate enough to have huge support from my grandma as well as a good family friend that gave me the money to be able to ski five days a week, not have to have a job, and be able to still pay rent. We train five days a week for about four hours a day, making it a hugely elite program, so it just all came together for me to get good as fast as I could. Then last May I was nominated to the US developmental team that was just like, “This is crazy. This is happening.”
It’s crazy because my first season I had to win a certain number of races to make that team, and being such a rookie I didn’t have any idea I needed to win those races I was just skiing. I really give a lot of credit to my naiveté, if you will. Just being naïve to everything I was like, “I’m [just] going to race.” And, I ended up winning two national titles my first season of racing. I just won the races that mattered, so I got named to the US team and then this season I ended up traveling for the first time internationally. This January 2010 I went to Europe for the World Cup and it was ugly. I was kind of a wreck. Our first races were in Austria and Austria’s snow is so different then in the US and being from Colorado powder and soft snow is really all I know. Well, I got to Austria and they ski on ice … I ended up falling and not finishing four out of my five races in Austria, so that was a huge learning experience.
I liken it to getting kicked in the teeth everyday but you get up. To be honest, I cried every single time, which I’m not embarrassed to say because I’m passionate about it and I don’t want to lose and I don’t want to not perform at my best. Racing is so different from basketball in that you have one chance—one minute maybe a minute and half, if that, to perform at your highest without making any mistakes. In basketball, if you turn over the ball or miss a free throw you didn’t just lose the game. In ski racing, you make a turn a little wider than the other girl you lose by a tenth or a hundredth of a second, so every day in Austria I would wake up and try to shake it off. I say, “You know what that was yesterday. Today is today. I learned something from that and I’m going to apply it.” So, super frustrating but a big learning experience for me.
And then, we went from Austria to Italy for the speed races, which is more my forte, and I ended up getting third in the first race and I won the second and the third race. Then I was like, “Okay, I’m feeling good about this world competition thing. But still, I didn’t have it in my mind that I’m going to go to Vancouver and win two gold medals, silver, and a bronze; no way!” I left Europe with a really good feeling of “I think I can do this. I think I can be really good.” I didn’t have any expectations, especially since I left thinking, “… [what a] really cool experience waking up every day and riding the lift and seeing the Alpine glow and the Italian Alps. I don’t care if I suck at this sport, I want to keep doing it.” Plus, for me, it’s so beautiful and a really cool concept getting people with severe disabilities up on a mountain and then racing down …
Anyways, getting to Vancouver was just like a real whirlwind because I was still just learning and refining my skills. Going into Vancouver we had our World Cup Finals, which is the culmination of the European races. I did really well there—I won two globes, which is an overall title for winning or competing the best in the five events—Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, and Super Combined (more info). That was like, “Wow. Okay.” I started proving to myself that I wasn’t just getting lucky. I was consistently skiing well. I got two globes, so there’s no denying it. … It was like this dream come true. It was all coming together.
I was skiing really well really fast, my athleticism from basketball transferred over really easy, and the biggest thing and the thing I think is so fortunate—I don’t know if I give it up to God or to the universe for making this a fortunate experience—I didn’t hurt myself. Ski racing is very dangerous. My first season I ended up breaking two ribs and injuring my shoulder, but my season going into Vancouver, I skied fast and I didn’t have any hard crashes. Going into Vancouver, I was like, “Well, let’s see what happens here.” And I think part of the reason I was so successful was because I didn’t have those expectations and I just started skiing. In my mind, I thought it would have just been cherry on top if I could medal in Vancouver; however, I had personally set a goal of winning gold in the Downhill and the Super G. The technical races—the Giant Slalom and the Slalom—aren’t really my thing, so I said to myself, “Well, I’ll do my best but I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” And it turns out the first race, the Slalom I actually fell on my first run, so I didn’t have any hope on the second run to medal at all but it was a good experience to get the jitters out. I was like, “Okay, I did that fine and it can’t get any worse.”
(J): It’s just going to go up…
(A): Exactly, so, my second race was the Giant Slalom (GS)—in GS, you have two runs and the culmination of the times from the first and second run are added together and if you have the least amount of time you win, basically. Like I said, it wasn’t my strongest event but the day we raced it, it rained from morning til night. It was just such a crazy experience because I had never skied in the rain. Although I think that’s what really helped me win because I realized and thought to myself “Everyone else is skiing in it. I’m just going to throw down.” It would have had been a harder race for me if the conditions were perfect. The snow was crazy—it was like slushy and hard and icy and weird. After my first run I was up by a second and a half. As I go into my second run, … I am getting ready … knowing I have a second and a half lead and that I need to throw down a consistent run, but I can’t have any major mistakes, it raining, and I’m at the Paralympics with a chance to win a gold medal right now. It was really cool because if you win the first run of the GS or the Slalom you get to go last for the second one, so I knew if I made it down that course all I had to do was look up and see if my time was on top. And sure enough, I got through that course and saw my name up top and just glanced at it and exploded into a whaling cry with tears and it was an unpredictable response for me.
It was a very emotional experience because I lost my brother this summer and the only reason I was skiing at that point was because I knew he wanted me to and there were days that I was like, “I hate this!” I was filling my goggles up with tears because I didn’t want to even keep living at that point. I didn’t want to be losing my brother and missing him so bad, but there’s just no doubt in my mind that he would want me to do it. So, I knew that day after feeling like that and all the pain and anguish I went through I had to keep skiing because I knew he wanted me to and I hated him for that [laughing] still thinking, “I don’t want to do this. It sucks.” He was such a big fan and that was the reason I was even at the Paralympics. Then for me to have that happen, everything, it was just the perfect day. And when I crossed the finish line, those tears were not for winning a gold medal. Those tears were for my brother and for the fact that he’s present and still very much a part of my life. It was undeniable that day that he was there. Click here to see highlights (at 1 min) of the race.
I just lost it emotionally that’s what it was, winning my first gold medal as an individual athlete, and then going to the medal ceremony, I was crying before I even got on the podium. I was balling because not only was it my first gold medal [of the Games], but it was the first gold medal for the United States in the Games, so I got to let my whole delegation hear our national anthem for the first time. There was this unbelievable sense of pride and it was an honor. It was such an honor for me to be on the very highest podium and to be respecting our national anthem. I literally wore my gold medal everywhere I went, all night long. I went into this restaurant and everyone there was like, “Oh my god, let me see it. Can I have your autograph?” I went to bed and I set my gold medal next to me on my nightstand and I woke up, no joke, I was like, “Wait a minute. Did that really happen? Did that really just happen? Did I win a gold medal?” And, I looked over and it was there and I was like, “Oh my god that happened. This is so much to process. Whoa.”
(J): And I’m sure still processing…
(A): Yeah, absolutely.
(J): Because that was just the first of four to come.
(A): Yeah, I was just skiing in the moment and that was one of my goals I set out to do and that’s what you have to do with ski racing. If you fall in a race before, you cannot carry that to the next race. You can’t carry that fear of what if you hurt yourself. You can’t carry that disappointment. You have to be forgetful and that’s one of my best qualities. I have a terrible memory. I was able to ski in the moment and without those expectations I was able to just perform and I did. I won the gold in the Downhill, silver in the Super G, and the bronze in the Super Combined, and I’m the most medaled athlete of both the Paralympic and Olympic Games. And that’s kind of a lot to process too.
(J): Yeah, I was going to ask, how is that feeling for you? Without a doubt, you’re still processing, yet I see this as an opportunity to capture what you’re feeling now [May 3, 2010] because maybe one day we can talk about it in a different space. So, how does that feel?
(A): It’s been an interesting dynamic to understand what it all means. I did perform well but I feel so blessed. I was fortunate. I skied well. Everyone wants to go to the Paralympics or the Olympics and have their best run but there are no guarantees. For me, not only did I feel blessed because I was there but I also won the Downhill, which was the ultimate accomplishment for me because that’s my race, that’s what I love, and that to me is the most challenging because you go the fastest and you scare yourself to death, but it’s always like you’re riding that line. And, I was able to have my best run. I won that race by four seconds. Nobody was even close and that was amazing to feel that athletically accomplished.
To win four medal [pauses to ponder], you know is just so hard to process but one of the things I have been really working on is taking ownership of that and remembering what it took to win those and what I need to do to get better … —even the gold medal runs I can look at and be like, “Okay, I can get better at these things.” And, it’s not about the medals themselves. It’s about being the best you can be as an athlete, and I feel so thankful those are mine and nobody can ever take those away from me, but I also feel like I have a lot of work to do still to reach my peak. I mean winning the gold medal is not the ultimate goal in my career. I want to be the best that I can be and if that means being the best in the world that’s cool too [we both laugh].
I think I still got a lot of learning to do, a lot of growing but one thing about being a Paralympian is that there is this underlying sort of assumption that because we’re Paralympic we’re less than Olympic caliber athletes. We’re second, we go second after the Olympics. We use all the same venues, we’re the second largest sporting event in the world next to the Olympics. It’s huge but there is this sort of an assumption that because we’re Paralympic we’re less and that’s been a huge goal of mine to prove to people that because what I do differently doesn’t mean it takes any less work and it doesn’t mean it takes any less dedication or discipline, so by owning these medals, which is hard because I’m kind of a modest, humble person but it doesn’t help our sport for me to be modest. Yet, it obviously doesn’t help our sport for me to be overly confident either. That’s why I have definitely been trying to take ownership of the fact that I earned these medals and because I’ve put the work in and even though it took me a year and half to do it I did work in that amount of time. I’m just really trying to change the stereotypes of Paralympic athletes that are out there. It’s not this huge stereotype but there are some people that are like, “Oh, it’s just the Paralympics.” And, I’m like, “No, it’s the Paralympics.” That’s not where I’m at.
(J): Okay, so what’s next for Alana Nichols?
(A): Well, I decided to not try out for the basketball team for the 2010 Worlds’ for a competition later in September. That was a really hard decision for me to make but I’m still healing from the loss of my brother. Plus, I’m sort of using the momentum that I got from the Vancouver Games—being a four-time medalist—to help progress my career as a ski racer. I’m doing a lot of public speaking. I’m still trying to find my message there. My story is what people always want to hear, but I also feel like it’s important to be intentional about my message, so I’m working on that a lot. We started training for ski racing in June 2010, so I didn’t have a whole lot of time off and I look forward to possibly making the 2011 Para-PanAmerican Team for basketball and then possibly the 2012 basketball team. It’s still the love of my life, I’m just taking a breather and I’m absolutely looking forward to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
(J): So, still competing in both sports?
(A): Yeah, I can’t say that’s what I will do for sure, but I’m going to try and I would never compromise one sport for another because I just think that’s a waste of time to split yourself. But, yeah, no job in the future that’s for sure [we both laugh]. I have my master’s in kinesiology and I’d love to use that someday, but I’m definitely just riding the wave of being an athlete, which is great. I love it—getting to travel, getting to do what you love, and getting to meet really cool people. I couldn’t ask for more really.
(J): And, it’s not going to last forever…
(A): It really isn’t. I’m ridin’ it.
(J): I’m going to end by asking, what has been the most amazing part of your journey so far? And please, feel free to interpret however you want.
(A): I see what you’re saying about that question, it’s like she won gold medals, isn’t that enough?
(J): I didn’t want to assume you know.
(A): Yeah, I understand. Like I said before, the medal is the outward expression of the work that I have done. The hardest thing I have ever done was continuing to compete after my brother passed away. Beforehand, it was easy for me to compete as an athlete, I love it. It’s easy. Not the work, being in the gym everyday, it’s tough, but I love to do it. I love to make progress and all that. But when I was faced with such a different type of adversity, something that was more emotional and mental that I had to overcome … there was a moment when winning that gold medal, my first gold medal that was the moment that I was like, “I did that and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” And so, I think that’s one of the most amazing parts of the journey but… [pauses to gather her thoughts] I’m just so thankful that I get to go out…oh! I have so many different amazing moments, but one of my huge goals and I’ve had to look for a purpose in ski racing because it’s an individual sport and it’s not enough to me to get all the glory and that be it. That doesn’t matter, I don’t want the glory. It’s great or whatever and it’s a lot of fun to get all the attention—it really is, but for me, I really needed to find something else. When I first broke my back I remember how lonely it was and how lost I was and how bleak and dim my life looked at that point and sport is what gave it to me. And so, I hope I inspire other young women with disabilities because it’s going to be a long life if you can’t find purpose or meaning or confidence and that’s all the things that sport gave me.
And so, I meet this young woman in Vancouver and she was probably 5 or 6 and she was in this tiny little wheelchair and she met me and she was so shy but said, “Oh my god, I’m meeting a gold medalist.” Afterward, I was really sweet with her and everything, I put my gold medal around her neck and she looked at me, this sounds really dramatic, but she told me, “I want to be just like you.” And, to myself, I was like, “Whoa, that’s why I do it.” While I told her, “That’s amazing and I hope that you do. I hope you go out and do whatever you can with whatever you have. If you want to be, you don’t have to be a ski racer, you can do anything. Just go out and do it. Try your hardest and have fun.” And, that was one of the most amazing moments. It was really like one of those full circle moments where I was like, “Okay, that’s why I do this.” And that meant more to me than the gold medal. I’ve heard this from a number of people. They’re just like, “You don’t know how many people have seen you and know what you’re doing and you’re inspiring. I’m just like, “Okay, that’s a lot to process.”
(J): Before I turn off the recorder, I just want to ask, is there anything else you want to say?
(A): … I just hope that other people can experience what I’ve experienced—not as a person with a disability but as an athlete that loves what they do. I love you’re [IOU Sports] website as it’s taking ownership of being a woman and taking pride in that while competing in sports. I just hope my message comes across in that way.
What’s clear as I share this interview with you as well as reflect on my time with Alana then and since then is that she’s on a journey of taking ownership of not only what has happen to her along the way— both good and bad, but she is also taking ownership of her role in the adaptive sport movement. I don’t feel like it’s my place to say what this role is since I think Alana does this well and is still in the process of figuring that out. I’ve always been a believer that action speaks louder than words, despite my love for them and my passion of composing them together. However, I think the best compliment is when others notice. And, believe me, others are noticing. In fact, Alana was just nominated for a 2010 ESPN ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete with a Disability. Even as a friend of Alana, I was humbled by the experience of interviewing her. It was powerful, motivating, and emotional. I feel honored to tell her story. I leave you with a poem I wrote shortly after our time together:
With a smile that illuminates the room, Alana glides…
With an energy that is infectious, Alana glides…
With a perseverance that won’t die, Alana glides…
With a spirit that shines, Alana glides
As she glides through life, Alana is a woman that reminds us that setting the bar high is what life is all about!
Click here to see Alana’s advice to young girls and women.
CALL 2 ACTION: Vote for Alana as the 2010 Best Female Athlete with a Disability here. An then, watch the ESPYS as they broadcast live on ESPN from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 14 at 9 p.m. ET.