By Troy Hawks
Alana Nichols, a six-time Paralympic medalist, likes to lighten the mood before a ski race. Early last March, while most Americans were sleeping, the 31-year-old two-sport phenom was half a world away perched at the starting gate for the womens downhill of the 2014 Winter Paralympics.
Just seconds away from the start, she leans over to coach Kevin Jardeen and asks, Hows my hair?
You look great kid.
Four years earlier in Vancouver, Nichols won gold in downhill and giant slalom, a silver medal in the Super G, and bronze in the super combined. She won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing as part of the U.S. womens wheelchair basketball team. Her expectations for Sochi were high.
The timer beeps, and Nichols her brunette locks neatly tucked beneath her blue and white ski helmet reared up on her outriggers, and launched onto the course. Only six gates into her run, she lost her edge and her bucket skidded out beneath her.
It all happens so fast, youre holding your breath, and your saying, I gotta fix this, fast! she says.
But I managed to pop back up, and then I just pointed it.
She hit 75 mph the fastest shes ever gone trying to make up the time. Nevertheless, the split-second mistake ultimately added three seconds to her run. But even with the miscue, she missed Gold by only a tenth of a second.
Later that afternoon, there she was, the only thing outshining her metallic silver Team USA puff jacket and the silver medal adoring it, is her beaming smile; her dark curly tresses glistening over her shoulders looking ready to film a glamour commercial. You can tell shes learned how to enjoy the moment.
Yet as good as her hair may have looked then, it would be the least of her worries in the Super G. Between the sixth and seventh gate, Nichols skidded out on a turn to the right, and then over-corrected as she swung back to the left. The cameras showed her slamming chin-first into the hard-pack snow. Shes knocked unconscious and flown to a nearby hospital.
WATCH TEAM USA HIGHLIGHTS: http://www.teamusa.org/Video/2014/03/11/2014-Paralympics–Alpine-Skiing–USA-Womens-Sitting-Super-G-Highlights
Minutes later her teammate Stephani Victor also crashed hard. She too was flown to a nearby hospital for medical attention. The snow hadnt frozen overnight for several weeks, so the course was bumpy. In video footage of the games you see the skiers bouncing along the race course, losing contact with the snow half a dozen times in a run.
Knocked out cold, and flown to the hospital, but six days later there was Nichols poised at the starting gate once again, this time for the Giant Slalom. If there were style points, she may have won. Despite laying down a solid first run that landed her in third, she caught her outrigger on a gate halfway down the course, recovered by doing a miraculous on-course 360, and ultimately finished fourth.
It was a rough games for me, achieving that level of athleticism is hard work, and even with all of that, theres still a certain amount of good fortune in winning a ski race; thats just ski racing, she says.
WATCH ALANAS MIRACULOUS 360 (clip is 16:12 seconds into this video): http://www.teamusa.org/Video/2014/03/16/2014-Paralympics–Alpine-Skiing–Womens-Giant-Slalom-Sitting-Run-2
Whatever the genome, its clear that Alana Nichols DNA is that of one tough lady. This is just one more time in her life that demanded strength.
Nichols is an open-closet tomboy. In high school she played basketball, volleyball, and she had high hopes of landing a scholarship for softball. She started snowboarding at 13 years old.
Mostly, I was just trying to hang with the guys, she says.
When she was 17, she and the guys were goofing around on their snowboards in the backcountry north of Durango, Colorado. It was mid-November 2000, and there was only a thin base of snow on the ground. Nichols had been practicing back flips on her snowboard in during the summer, and now she was ready to kick it up a notch.
I just decided that I wanted to try it on snow, and I wanted to do it that day, she says.
She over-rotated, and her back slammed down on a rock.
But thats the thing, she says. Theres practicing on a trampoline or into the pool, but theres always the first time doing it on snow. Theres always going to be a certain level of guess-work to knowing whether or not you can do it; you cant know if youre prepared until you do it.
Nichols back was broke, and so were her dreams of a softball scholarship.
Its funny how life works, I had an Olympic dream of softball, but then softball gets dropped from the Olympics. Then I break my back, and Ive still been able to fulfill my dreams of being an Olympian and traveling the world as a pro athlete.
Since Sochi, shes appeared on Conan OBrien, Katie Couric, and met President Obama.
I feel like Forrest Gump a little bit, she jokes.
One of Alanas first fans was a three year girl from Portland, Oregon, whom she met during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
She was too young to know what winning a Gold medal was, but weve stayed in touch and now shes super into mono basketball, Alana says.
When I spoke to Alana, she had this quote from Proverbs 31:25 on her Facebook profile: She is clothed with dignity and strength and laughs without fear of the future.
She sees lots of opportunities beyond competitive sports and she was recently invited to work with the Christopher Reeve Foundation. She wants to write a book, and work to raise awareness for adaptive athletics. And oh yes, she plans to be in Rio for the summer Olympics.
The NSCD cannot operate without funding, and people with disabilities cant do what we love to do without that program, it changed my life and it has the potential of changing many more.