INTERVIEW: Alana Nichols

ALANA NICHOLS

The Cup Half Full

Alana Nichols is known for her prowess as a multisport athlete, with a decorated career earning her gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. A few years back the surfing bug bit her hard, and it was not long before she was turning heads in the lineup as well. Adaptive Surfing Magazine had the chance to catch up with Alana the day before the 17-year anniversary of her injury, marking half of her life in a wheelchair. Over a cup of coffee Alana did some reflecting and forward-thinking, and her cup was definitely half full.

Photo: Prather

Photo: Prather

ASM: Can you tell us how you came to be a surfer and what sports you did prior?

AN: So, 17 years ago tomorrow I injured myself. Tomorrow actually is my 17 year anniversary of my accident, and its actually my half-life, so I will-as of tomorrow- have been in a wheelchair
as long as I was able bodied, which is kind of a significant day for me. Seventeen years ago, I broke my back in a snowboarding accident. I over-rotated on a backflip, landed on a pretty
substantial sized boulder beneath the snow, broke my back in three places, and became paralyzed on impact.

I was a three sport athlete before my injury, and naturally thought my identity as an athlete and my goals as an athlete were no longer, and kind of sat in a two year funk where I didn’t
have any outlets for being athletic, and in that two year period I’ve never been lower and more without purpose and hope. I was completely lost and it was at my lowest point when, I think it
was a God moment, I cruised through the gym at the University of New Mexico and found out about wheelchair basketball. So long story short, I was hesitant, got into the sport and found
myself again as an athlete, and I never looked back.

ASM: What sports were you involved in prior to your accident?

AN: I actually played basketball, volleyball, and softball, but put most of my focus on fast pitch softball with the hopes of going to college on an athletic scholarship and also I had dreams of
playing in the Olympic Games for softball as well.

ASM: But then you said you injured yourself doing a backflip snowboarding? So you were
snowboarding at a pretty high level as well. Did you have ambitions in the snowboard realm as well?

AN: When I found snowboarding, it was my first experience with expressing myself in an extreme way. I’d always been part of these linear sports, and I loved the adrenaline of getting up to bat and the pressure that was put on me to perform, and things like that, but with snowboarding I was really able to express myself on the mountain unlike anything I’d done before. When I first started I was just like…woah. I got to be creative and express my own style
and push my limits in a way I’d never done before.

I was snowboarding on the side, but fast-pitch softball was my goal, my plan really, to move forward in life and go to college, but I really loved snowboarding and part of what I think led up to the moment when I broke my back was the fact that I was really competitive and I found myself surrounded by the guys, the best skiers on the mountain in Durango, Colorado. I knew that I needed to stay within my limits and the day that I decided to flip my backflip I felt prepared to do it. I’d been planning to do it that season, I could do a flat ground backflip, I was practicing on a trampoline, and I was really focused on completing this goal, this task of flipping a backflip on a snowboard. It just turns out, it was November 19th of 2000, so that’s really early in the season, but there wasn’t a base on the mountain and there was a lot of snow, we had just got five feet of early snowfall. One of the things that I wasn’t prepared for, we
didn’t probe for rocks underneath the snow, so I ended up over-rotating the backflip, doing a one and a half, and I landed directly on a big boulder. The density of that impact is what broke my back.

ASM: So that was your first attempt?

AN: Yeah, I know. 17 years old, chomping at the bit, like I’m ready, but the conditions just weren’t right.

ASM: And did you know you were badly injured instantly?

AN: Yeah, the second that my back broke and the bone shards from T11 flew through my spinal cord, I felt this electric sprong, and like, it’s hard to describe. It’s basically like that nerve
feeling but it sounded…it was so strong, it like sent this sound throughout my body. It started at my waist and that sprong just took that feeling from my waist down to my toes. I think that the most pivotal moment was when my friend JC ran over to me and I asked him where my board and my boots were, I was just so confused by what had taken place. Just that electrical sprong and I didn’t know where my board and my boots were, and he said they were on my feet. I was like, this is bad, because I can’t feel that at all.

So that happened 17 years ago, tomorrow, and like I said I was just in a space where I had put all my eggs in that athletic basket. That was my college plan, my future plan. I was academically ok, I was average, I was gonna get through school, I always had, but it wasn’t what I was putting my focus on. When I broke my back it was like everything that I had planned at 17 was gone, and it was in the year 2000 so adaptive sports were pretty underdeveloped. There weren’t any real resources online or magazines or anything
of adaptive sports that I knew of at the time. So it took a good two years for me to even know what my options were as an athlete with a disability and I think it was pretty serendipitous that I came across a whole team of people playing wheelchair basketball in an auxiliary gym at the
University of New Mexico.

Photo: Catarina

Photo: Catarina

The other thing about it was, I was a pretty prideful softball player. I needed a legit sport to make me feel like an athlete again. I had heard there was this thing called adaptive softball, and I was like “no”. I’m not doing it. It doesn’t relate, it will never compare, but the day that I saw and came across wheelchair basketball, I mean, the sport itself is violent in nature, so these guys are all in chairs that are specifically designed for wheelchair basketball, they’re aggressive, they’ve got straps, they’re attached to the chair, and they’re hitting each other like
full on. They’re falling over, getting up, shooting three balls stationary at the three point line and making them, and I’m like, “ok”. The hoop heights the same, the court lengths the same, and for the first time in my life after my accident for two years, I’d always been treated for those two years like I was so breakable and delicate because now I’m in a wheelchair. For me to see these guys full contact, falling over, it made me feel alive again, and I needed that,
I needed to just hit something and feel again and not have people tiptoeing around me as a person, because that’s not who I was just because I looked so different. So wheelchair
basketball changed my perspective and from that point it just projected me towards the adaptive sports life.

ASM: So then you wound up competing in wheelchair basketball and that was your first sport that you really got competitive in. What year did you go to the Paralympics for wheelchair
basketball?

AN: I got named to the 2004 team as an alternate, which was a big turning point for me, because while I didn’t go to games in 2004, I got to train with the US Paralympic women’s basketball team from the years 2004-2008. It really stepped up my game being surrounded
by the best, most elite women’s basketball players in the world, and I really rose to the occasion. I trained from 2004-2008 for Beijing in wheelchair basketball and that was my first Paralympic games.

Photo: Felix Chen

Photo: Felix Chen

ASM: And then you won?

AN: Yeah! Like a Cinderella story, we went into the tournament undefeated and left with gold
medals around our necks. It was the most amazing, you know for four years, actually more like five years, I trained for that one moment to take place, and I just feel so fortunate that you know there’s so many other athletes that wanted to have that for them, and for me to have this relatively new injury. There’s a lot of folks that have been training for that moment for a lot longer than I had, and five years of dedication all came into fruition as a gold medal, and it was an incredible experience.

ASM: And then you went on to do alpine skiing as well, and you competed in the games in
which years for alpine skiing?

AN: So right after Beijing, I had already planned on that being my next move. I had just graduated from the University of Alabama with my Masters in Kinesiology and I knew I was ready to embark on the next challenge, and I wanted to get back on the mountain.

ASM: So you did that while you were training for the Olympics?

AN: Right, so there’s actually an intercollegiate division for wheelchair basketball, and I was
able to do my undergrad and graduate degree on a wheelchair basketball scholarship, which is
pretty phenomenal. So I did my undergrad at Arizona, got recruited to play at the University of Alabama and did my masters there. I had a pretty epic 2008! I graduated with my masters and won a gold medal in the same year. So 2008 finished, went to Beijing won the gold, and I knew I wanted to get back on the mountain. That’s when I moved to Winter Park, Colorado and started pursuing alpine skiing, and my goal was to make it to the 2010 games as a ski racer, and that’s basically how it went.

ASM: And that’s what happened, right? And you got another gold?

AN: Yeah, in 2010. First of all, for me to embark on a new sport with only two years, I had skied some prior to becoming a ski racer. I had like three days a season for like three years. So I was getting into it, but my focus was wheelchair basketball. When I moved up to Winter Park
I wasn’t getting on and off the lift independently yet, so I had a lot of work to do to get to 2010. But being the adrenaline type, and someone who was into taking risks, one of the things that really gave a little bit of an edge was a lot of the women I was competing against had to
get over this fear factor. Like, their internal governor slowing them down, and for me, I was ready to go.

ASM: And that’s why it probably translates to surfing so well.

AN: Absolutely. It’s not that I’m fearless, by any means, but I guess I have this higher pain tolerance, or threshold of some kind that just puts me at a little bit of a different level
than a lot of women.

ASM: So in 2010 you had gold, and then you won a third gold medal, correct? 

AN: In 2010, I won two golds, a silver and a bronze. So I had the most epic year!

ASM: Two golds, a silver, and a bronze. So that was all in different categories of the
alpine skiing?

AN: Yeah, so there’s five events altogether and I medaled in four.

ASM: So altogether…

AN: I have six medals 

ASM: So you’ve got three golds, a silver…

AN: I ended up winning a silver at the 2014 winter Paralympic games as well. In downhill.

Photo: Catarina

Photo: Catarina

ASM: We could talk Paralympics all day, so let’s talk about surfing a little bit. How did you find surfing? What is it that’s so unique about surfing compared to the other sports you’ve done?

AN: I got into surfing after the 2014 winter Paralympic games, I was in Hawaii, taking my grandma on vacation there. While I was there, I learned about a program called AccesSurf Hawaii, and Cara Troy went out of her way to get me into the water on her day off, and with
that I learned about wave skiing, and she got me on my first wave. Before going into Hawaii, I had a couple of pretty substantial injuries as an alpine skier. I dislocated my shoulder posteriorly, blew it up, had to have surgery and everything going into 2014. Then at the 2014 games, I slid out, the snow was really terrible and I landed directly on my face. I dislocated
my jaw and I busted open my chin and got knocked out, like in a ski race. So naturally, I’m just having second thoughts about my career going forward as an alpine skier. I find myself in Hawaii, I learn how to surf, and it all comes together for me. I was out in the water, I was substantially, sort of traumatized you know? And when I was in the lineup and I caught my first wave… obviously I’m in Hawaii so the water there is just so welcoming and inviting and everything, but there’s also some healing properties. On a soul level, on a spiritual level, I felt
better about my life at that point, after I caught my first wave. Putting it together in my head I thought ok, I gotta surf. How can I make this happen and still make a living, and with that I decided to pursue my third sport at a Paralympic level and that was sprint kayak, which brought me to Southern California.

I trained with a program called the San Diego Canoe and Kayak team. I trained for two years for Rio and surfed as a cross trainer, all the while wanting to be surfing much more. I had to stay focused on sprint kayak to get to the games, which I did. I was happy with my performance making it into the final and finishing seventh in the world in 2016. Now I’m
done with that, and now I’m pursuing surfing with all of my heart. One thing that’s different about surfing from my other sports is again, it’s sort of nonlinear in that you can express yourself creatively, and I really love the fact that every wave is different and you get to
make decisions. Every break is different, and being able to read the ocean is a never-ending learning process. I’m fully intrigued, I’m still learning so much every time I go out. That’s what I love most about being an athlete is the reach. It’s not about getting to the top, it’s not about winning the medal or mastering the sport. It’s about learning it and reaching and growing.

ASM: As far as Paralympics, would you say you’re done with the Paralympic games or do you have more Paralympic aspirations?

AN: My Paralympic aspirations now are focused on getting Adaptive Surfing into the 2024 Games. I am on the athlete commission board for the LA bid. LA is obviously bidding on 2024, and as an athlete in Southern California, they have invited me onto the board. My angle is
one, to get the Games to LA, but very short thereafter, almost equal importance, is to get
Adaptive Surfing into those Games.

It’s super exciting, I have every intention of doing the Kelly Slater 48 year old surfer
thing. I’m 33 now I won’t be that old, but I’d love to compete in those games as well. So to answer your question, I’m not currently competing as a Paralympic athlete, but working towards it.

ASM: What’s next for you?

AN: What’s next for me, I’m not retired formally, but I am transitioning formally into my more professional career as a speaker. One thing that I’ve found I’m really interested in is broadcasting, and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to commentate the ISA event. So I’ll be on the mic there, and I’m in contact with NBC Universal to do the commentary for the next
four Paralympic games, so I’ll do basketball and alpine skiing.

ASM: For the next four! That’s very cool. Are you competing in the (ISA) worlds or just commenting?

AN: Just commentary! I didn’t qualify, there’s only a few spots for wave ski, and there’s not a woman’s division, so I would have had to beat the best wave skier in the country, Jeff Munson who is a legend, and I didn’t do that. So I am not competing, but I hope to compete in the third annual.

Photo: Jereme Condamine

Photo: Jereme Condamine

ASM: Tomorrow is your “half-life”, as you called it, the anniversary of your injury and also the serendipitous date which you have now spent exactly half of your life in a wheelchair. This must be an emotional and unique perspective, what is going through your mind?

AN: It’s an emotional day for me to think about my 17-year-old self having to go through the trauma of breaking her back, and how confusing and painful that was for her. If I focus on that I will be in tears all day tomorrow, but one thing I choose to put my energy into is what I’ve done since. I have just this heart full of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been given. I’ve been really fortunate to travel the world, and I’ve been to third world countries where people with disabilities and equal amounts of athletic talent as myself don’t have the opportunities I’ve been given, and they don’t get to express themselves as athletes or reach their fullest potential or represent their country, and I’ve been able to do that in three sports. Possibly four, if surfing develops the way I hope it does. Tomorrow is just a day of gratitude for me, and I hope to surf K38 for the first time, because I’m headed to Mexico.

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