Category: Interview

“I’m Dead Sexy.” Better yet, …“People Like Me.”

Are you wondering who said these two contrasting statements? No clue. Let me give you a few hints…

She’s a 4-time All-American while at Stanford; 3-time Olympic medalist; 2-time World Cup champion; a member of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team , the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and the 2002 Title IX Commission on Opportunity in Athletes; plus, served as President of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

If you guessed Julie Foudy, then “ding, ding,” you are correct!

I had the pleasure of interviewing this “phenomenal role model and American icon for what she’s accomplished in women’s sports, as well as just women’s business and leadership.” Which is how Amy Love—Equal Rights Advocate’s (ERA) first Title IX client—described Julie prior to me sitting down with her. I must admit, it feels odd referring to this woman I’ve admired for years— starting as a 9- or 10-year old girl though my formative undergraduate years when my advocacy work for Title IX began—in such an informal way, yet this is the energy and presence she exudes—comfortable, confident, curious, and conscious.

In fact, as I introduced myself, it was clear the commonalities we shared:

Jillian (JR): I did an independent study in my undergrad creating a program called Backyards & Beyond…because I felt like my generation had no idea what it was.

Julie (JF): That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

(JR): That actually leads me to my first question, how are you feeling about today’s event and what message do you hope the audience takes away from your keynote?

(JF): Well, I’m totally pumped to be here for ERA because I just think the world of what they’re doing. We need groups like them…. When I read what they’re doing, I just think, “Ah, the world’s a better place because they exist.” When they asked me to come, I said, “Of course, I’ll come, it’s a great honor and that it’s the 40th anniversary of Title IX is huge.” It does sadden me that more kids don’t know what Title IX is and I don’t blame them. I just don’t understand why…it’s not more a part of the curriculum….I think it’s one of the most profound civil rights laws we’ve had in this country. And, the fact that kids don’t know about like they know about their civil rights pioneers in this county, I get a little bit madden by that and frustrated.

There you have it, one item on Julie Foudy’s self-proclaimed bucket list—getting Title in the K-12 curriculum. In the meantime, she shared with both the crowd of 600+ at ERA’s Annual Luncheon and I, “Title IX has been such a gift for me, the [U.S. Women’s soccer] team, my career, [which] why I will always advocate for girls playing sports.” This felt like a good transition to my next question, which was actually created by Haliee Kaliban—friend, former professional soccer player, and owner of City Gym.

(JR):  How do you think Title IX has fostered the sisterhood experienced in women’s professional sports between the athletes and young women who hope to be them? For example, staying longer after the lights go off to sign little girls’ soccer balls, being accessible to the younger generation, etc. since you’ve really been known for this throughout your career?

(JF):  That’s a great question! We’ve never taken it for granted. The fact that we have the opportunity to play at that level—[at the Olympics and professionally]—and the importance of being a female role model…I grew up when there weren’t many [female role models] you could watch on television, certainly not any soccer players. I grew up thinking I would be an eight foot tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and I was 5-5, 5-6 on a good day. I wasn’t going to be a 300 pound lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, so those were kind of the guys I was watching.

We always felt with the [U.S. Soccer] National Team that here’s this wonderful opportunity to touch someone’s life and it doesn’t take a lot of time and to show them they could be out here someday, we got that. I think women athletes, in general still, even those who didn’t have to fight as hard for the right to play…still get it and don’t take it for granted and understand the value of touching a young girl’s life.

This understanding still resonates, as Julie took photos with admirers and fans, as well as signed programs, balls, etc. for anyone that asked, especially a young girl. Curious if her perspective of being a mom has changed or affected her advocacy work, I asked and she immediately lit-up and revealed:

JF): It’s great because I have one girl and one boy, so I have the full set. People ask, “do you want your daughter to play soccer or do you want your son to play?” Yes, of course, but really I just want them to play. I just want them to experience sport…, it’s not like I’m advocating more intensely (laughing).

(JR): Right.

(JF): I’ve always been a die-hard for playing sports, but it just makes me realize that I want Izzy, my five year old, to not only have the opportunity to play but to understand the historical perspective of it—that girls did not always have this opportunity and not to take it for granted. I just hope Izzy knows when mommy was playing, she played because of pioneers like Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona, Nancy Hogshead, ERA, and the National Women’s Law Center, the Women’s Sports Foundation, Senator Bayh, Patsy Mink, and all these people that are not household names and I think they should be when it comes to women’s sports.

(JR): Sounds like all great names to be included in that curriculum.

(JF): Exactly.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of skeptics—pre- and post-Title IX, male and female, revenue sports and non-revenue sports. Some would even argue that Title IX is non longer relevant and should be updated. That led me to ask Julie, “how is Title IX still relevant and how would you respond to such an argument?”

(JF): I think it’s incredibly relevant and it gets a bad wrap. Unnecessarily so, because schools are escalating the funding they’re giving to certain programs and hoping to get a return. Unfortunately, over 80% don’t get a return and they pour millions and millions into football, basketball, or the higher revenue sports. I understand why, [yet] Title IX doesn’t dictate how they should spend their money. Don’t turn around and blame it on Title IX and use that as an excuse to not manage the budget well and not getting the return on your investment. Because of Title IX, they’re not able to cut the women’s sports. Unfortunately, which is something we never want to see, the men’s minor sports get cut to make more room for spending on the revenue sports because they can’t cut the women’s sports legally…I think it is still vital because there would be a lot less women’s teams at the collegiate level now, if it weren’t for Title IX. Unfortunately, that’s where collegiate sports at the Division I level are going. Where there’s just fewer and fewer [with the focus on revenue male-dominated sports]] instead of this broad based approach, which I think is sad to see.

I had to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, which then led me to a question that I had pondered since the release of the 2002 Commission on Opportunity in Athletics’ Minority Report by Donna De Varona and Julie Foudy. I asked,

(JR): How did it feel when you put that report out in the universe? What was your big hope and did it ultimately accomplished?

(JF): It was a bit nerve-racking actually because during that whole Commission we were the dissenting voice, and it was a rapid-fire tutorial on D.C. politics…But it was a great lesson for me on being okay with being the minority voice and having the courage and strength of conviction to say, “I know that there are all these people who think I’m nuts by saying this, but I know also that there are millions of young girls out there, dads and moms, that support what we are saying and there is value to what we are saying. When we [she and Donna] came out with the Minority Report, we were branded the problem children on that Commission, but it wasn’t for lack of effort and trying to incorporate [our voices] into the majority report…, we tried. I’m not just one to take a minority voice just to stir things up, but we just felt in the end, it [the Majority Report] didn’t get accomplished so we needed to do a report on our own.

Listening to Julie firsthand perspective was inspiring and reminded that the greatest power we each have is our voice. Yet in order to raise your voice, we each have our own way of making ourselves feel good or affirming our strengths. That said, my final question was what I call a “fun” one,

(JR): What do you say to yourself in the mirror when you need to feel amazing?

(JF): [Big laugh] You know that Saturday Night Live skit, “I’m good enough, I’m strong enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.”

(JR): Yep, absolutely. Because we all have those days, right?

(JF): Yeah, that’s a good one, what would I say in the mirror? You’re dead sexy.

(JR): Awesome.

(JF): No, I don’t know. I think I would say, “people like me.”

I find Julie’s response a perfect mix of each of our realities: what we tell ourselves (and hope) and what we know to be true. On this day (and everyday for that matter), honor both of thees realities and raise your voice for what you believe in!

~ One Love

CALL 2 ACTION: Let’s Show the Mags What Real Beauty Looks Like. Take the #KeepItRealChallenge on Instagram!

*Miss Representation in partnership with Endangered Bodies, we take the best photos of the day and display them on a billboard in New York City—the heart of the magazine industry.*

Big THANKS to Julie Foudy for sitting down to chat with me!!

Part 2 of 2 | My Interview with Alana Nichols: Mastering Whatever It Is, One “Ridiculous Dream” at a Time…

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.

Part 1 of 2 | My Interview with Alana Nichols: Making the Impossible Possible

In an effort to tell the untold stories of girls and women in sport, I present the story of Alana Nichols—granddaughter, daughter, sister, and friend—a woman who has overcome physical odds and triumphed as not only a Gold medal-winning Paralympian in both the Summer and Winter Games—the lone American woman to do so—but also as a leader in the adaptive sport movement. I hope her story inspires you that anything is possible. That said, I dedicate this post to those who have inspired and influenced Alana along her journey and in particular her Grandma— Joan Vilven—and brother, D.J. Nichols (29), who died unexpectedly in June 2009.

It’s November 19, 2000 and Alana Nichols is a senior in high school skiing in the Colorado backcountry with her friends. Although not new to the sport of snowboarding, she will be the first to tell you that she was getting good, having been boarding for five years, but not a professional by any means. And, this is where my interview begins…

Jillian (J): If you don’t mind, tell me about your accident and your athletic experience prior to it…

Alana (A): … I started playing sports at five years old. My grandma signed me up for T-ball … and I think there was just a love of sport from the very beginning …, I reacted in such a way that my spirit knew it, I loved it! And, I was so competitive … I was always like put me in. … I loved to bat, I loved to play, and I loved to run. I then started basketball and volleyball in the 4th grade and I played year-round sports ever since … until I broke my back …, so I was very much wrapped up [in sports] …my identity was as an athlete.

The day I broke my back I was definitely pushing the limits, and I think that’s what makes a good athlete—always trying something, within reason that is out of your comfort zone. Unfortunately when I broke my back—I can say this now— … it was an ill-advised decision. … I decided I was going to flip a back flip for the first time. It was early in the season … and we were just being careless. … I don’t like to pull anymore meaning out of it then there really is but I do know I’m always aware of my energy now as an athlete, especially as a ski racer, I really try to make decisions based on how I’m feeling. Like towards the end of the day, the day of my accident I was tired and I hadn’t even eaten … and I just wasn’t sharp. If I had thought about what I was doing as something of huge consequence, I probably would have said that’s a bad idea but … I own that now, because I feel I have learned so much from it.

My accident was a huge learning experience. I don’t blame myself anymore. … I hated myself for what I did to my body and what I had done to my life. Because I had really thought at that moment that I had ruined my chance to live … and I didn’t have anyone else to blame … it was all my decision. It’s been a long process of trying to take ownership of that while also making the most of what I do have … that I do have half a body that works and there are some people that don’t. I can get in my car and I can go where I want and I can wake up and get myself out of bed and dress myself. I’m nine years post injury now and I’ve gained a huge amount of perspective as a person with a disability and as a person that’s really blessed.

(J): What has allowed you to stay positive and look forward and as you were saying, take ownership?

(A): … at 17 that’s just something everyone is trying to learn regardless of trying to have to deal with a new disability or anything. … I grew up in a family where I wasn’t really given any excuses or any handouts. My grandma raised me. …she gave me so much freedom to behave like I wanted to and I knew that no one else was going to do it for me. When I broke my back, my grandma wasn’t going to step in and make everything better, she helped a great deal, but she wasn’t going to come in and enable me to be disabled. She wasn’t going to let me just hang out. … I just knew … it was up to me to do what I can with what I was left with. That’s one thing that kept me really positive. It’s interesting because when I first become disabled I compare it to being reborn because I literally had to learn how to sit-up again. … And then, I had to learn how to get from my bed to my wheelchair and … there were days I made zero progress and actually moved backwards and I ended up crying the whole day and I threw my hands in the air. Then there were also days … I was like, “Okay, this is the task at hand” and I started making progress. That’s what started things moving and sort of kept me positive.

(J):  You’ve mentioned your grandmother a few times, I’m wondering if there is anything specifically you want to say about her influence on you as well as what motivates you?

(A): My grandma … she’s just one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. I say that partly because she’s taken on some huge challenges in her life, including raising me and my sisters after my mom couldn’t do it. I hate to admit but I was not the easiest kid to raise but she hung in there. She’s just been such a rock. I know that whatever happens to me that she would be able to deal with it … she’s so strong like that.… I learned a lot of that—strength and focusing on the task at hand—from her. When I broke my back, I knew what I needed to do. There was never really an option in my head that I couldn’t do it. It was like I’m doing this, I will do this. My grandma was such a positive presence in my life at that time because that’s what she had always done. Her strong-mindedness is what really inspired me to be the same way. She brought that presence of you will and that’s what inspired me.

(J): Changing directions slightly, how did you transition from trying to sit-up in bed to actually getting back into athletics and being an athlete in the adaptive sport of wheelchair basketball?

(A): Ohh, the transition wasn’t easy and being an athlete yourself, you might be able to relate to not being able to do what you want to do and when I was first introduced to wheelchair sports I had this deep desire to be moving but being in a wheelchair just didn’t allow for that. I hadn’t had cardio in so long I needed to get my heartbeat going. I needed to sweat. That was the thing that I was itching to do. I ended up playing wheelchair softball, which was my first adapted experience in sport and it was a terrible one. I was a softball player prior to my accident. It was my main sport and I was on par to go to college and play collegiate softball, … so naturally people thought I should try out wheelchair softball when I learned what wheelchair softball was it broke my heart because you play in a wheelchair first of all, you don’t use a glove you use a big rag ball and you hit with one hand. And I was like, “No, this is nothing like what I used to do and it doesn’t compare and I hate it.” I cried and it was devastating because it just highlighted that I was in a wheelchair and I couldn’t play softball anymore. There was a good year between that day I tried wheelchair softball and I was introduced to wheelchair basketball. During that year I was just trying to figure out life, what am I going to do? Because I had figured wheelchair sports were going to suck all-around.

I got introduced to wheelchair basketball it was something challenging for me because a basketball wheelchair, it allows you to move fast. It has wheels that are slanted. It has a wheel in the back so that you don’t fall backwards. It has straps that you hook up into your hips and at your knees, so you’re like connected to this wheelchair and … it’s technically a wheelchair person’s equivalent to running and I loved it. I’m going fast and I’m moving myself. That was when I first got cardio and I was sweating, this is awesome. It was also the first time that I met other women in wheelchairs that were also athletes. All these things came together for me… we can compete again, we can challenge each other and get better, we can sweat, we can win games, and we can compete against other basketball teams, including all men’s teams and beat them too. I was like, let’s do this. That’s when my life really changed because like I said before I was an athlete all my life and my identity was so wrapped up in that, so when I found wheelchair basketball, I really found a part of my identity again. In a different way but in a way that I could be proud of since sport does so much for your psyche and you confidence and for your purpose and meaning, so I just took off.

I found out about this team in Arizona that was an all women’s team that was associated with the University of Arizona and I … ended up moving there a week and half before school started by junior year in college. I had been at the University of New Mexico before that, which is where I found out about wheelchair basketball. When I went to the University of Arizona was when I first got into a basketball chair. For nine months, I learned the game of wheelchair basketball. That was one of the things that rehabilitated me more than any amount of time in a physical therapy or occupational therapy setting. These are able body people who are trying to teach me how to be in a wheelchair and they just can’t do it the same as another woman my age who has had her disability longer than me and was doing it and trying her hardest and was enjoying her life because she had found sport as well. That’s when my life changed. I was like I can love life now. It was still really hard because I have to live life outside of wheelchair basketball and I have to be that girl in the grocery store who’s parents of these little kids will grab their kid out of the way because I’m so scary because I’m in a wheelchair. I’m totally normal, I’m just misunderstood here. I’m that girl and they don’t understand that I was once an able body person yet I could just escape into this wheelchair basketball world where I was equal. It gave me opportunities to make progress and making the US team my first year playing was huge and just made me want to know more and play more and work harder.

(J): Is there anything you want to say about that experience in terms of being on the Olympic team and winning a gold medal…the first time?

(A): … I said this already but the sport [wheelchair basketball] changed my life, period. … It so important to me to help people understand that people with disabilities are still athletes and we’re still capable of doing so much and the opportunities we have in this country to be part of a disabled sports team like a US national team is huge. I look back at how it all played out and I didn’t realize what I was working towards at the time but once I made that US team all these doors opened. I think I understood the weight of what just had happened because my first tryout I made the US team as an alternate to the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games and the moment was surreal because it was my first year and it had been a dream of mine to do that. And it wasn’t so much a dream of mine to go to Athens because I had just started playing. It was a dream of mine to be involved with the most elite wheelchair athletes in the country, so that was perfect for me because I worked hard while those girls were working towards Athens. I was working just as hard because I may or may not have gotten called to go. So I had to keep myself accountable in that way and that season was such a great time for me because I laid that foundation for hard work. I never knew if they were going to call me or not but I needed to be prepared and what were my standards going to be in terms of preparation, so I just worked my butt of that year. That really prepared me to stay on the team until the 2006 World Championships in Amsterdam, which was my first international basketball competition. We ended up getting the silver against Canada, which stands out because I hate to lose.

But then playing and working towards Beijing for a whole five years was one of the coolest goals I had ever set out to do and when we did win that gold it was so valuable to me because of how much work I had put into it and it was just a relief because of all the anticipation going into it. When we were in Beijing for the games we had gone into that tournament undefeated. … we ended up winning the gold on an undefeated season. Wow, such a moment of joy and relief all at the same time like I explain it to people that it was more relieving than it was like, Yeah, we just won a gold medal!” I was like, “Sweet, it’s over.” It was so hard but also this great sense of accomplishment. And one thing, I love this quote, I don’t know who says it but it’s written in the cafeteria of the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. It says something like, “What is a gold medal? It’s a trinket, it’s a material object but what matters is the great friends you make along the way and the growth that you make in your own athletic career and that’s what makes what a gold medal is.”  … the gold medal is this physical expression of the work that I’ve done and the experience that I have had and I love that it’s gold. I love that but more importantly, it’s about the people that helped me grow not only as an athlete but also as a woman with a disability and someone that can be proud to represent her country and also proud to be a person with a disability that’s promoting athleticism.

To be continued…

Check out the next post of Just Jillian… for the rest of my interview with Alana Nichols as we discuss her road from the court to the slopes and what’s next for her now that she has won four medals in the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games along with numerous achievements (see below) and once in a lifetime experiences under her belt.


Major Achievements:

  • 2010 Adaptive Athlete of the Year Award— U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA)
  • 2010, March: USOC Athlete of the Month
  • 2010: Gold medal, Giant Slalom – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
  • 2010: Gold medal, downhill – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
  • 2010: Silver medal, Super G – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
  • 2010: Bronze medal, Slalom – Paralympic Games, Vancouver, Canada
  • 2010: First place, downhill- World Cup, Sestriere, Italy
  • 2010: Second place, Super Combined- World Cup, Sestriere, Italy
  • 2010: Third place, Super G- World Cup, Sestriere, Italy
  • 2009: First place, downhill – U.S. Adaptive Nationals
  • 2009: Third place, Super combined – U.S. Adaptive Nationals
  • 2008:  Gold medal, wheelchair basketball – Paralympic Games, Beijing, China