Alana Nichols was a born athlete. From the age of five she played as many sports as she could and by the time she reached her senior year at high school, Alana was well on track to receive a college scholarship to play softball.
From hitting the softball pitch to hitting the slopes as a snowboarder, Alana was talented and feisty – not to mention, a risk taker. At 17 years old and feeling 10 foot tall, she decided to try her first back flip on a snowboard. Over-rotating she landed on a boulder buried beneath the snow.
”“I broke my back in three places, and I did a good job of it too, it was pretty destroyed.”Alana NicholsAdaptive Sporting Oracle
Paralysed at T10, rehabilitation was an interesting time for the young athlete. She had wanted to go to Craig Hospital, a well known rehabilitation facility in the United States, but they had no bed available. So back home Alana went, to Farmington, New Mexico.
“So I did my rehab in a local hospital in my home town where there was no one under 75, I was the youngest person there by far, the PTs and OTs didn’t know what to do with me.”
But luckily, her spinal cord injury wasn’t “too involved” with secondary complications.
“I was just able to knock it out. If they told me to sit up, I would sit up.”
Obviously, things got more complex when she had to learn how to use the bathroom, but all in all, Alana’s recovery was pretty straightforward.
Looking back, the rehab wasn’t that bad, in fact one of the worst things for Alana during that time was returning home.
“Everyone in the hospital is cheerleading for you, you’re thinking about getting a lot of function back, working hard, and everything is accessible in the hospital. Then you go home and nothing is accessible, there are no cheerleaders.”
Suddenly everything was so different. She had been so used to operating in her home environment as an able-bodied person, that it was hard to see herself in a wheelchair.
Besides, at that time she didn’t know of anyone else with a spinal cord injury or a disability in Farmington. Even now she can count on one hand the number of wheelchair users that live there.
The following two years was a very critical time for Alana. She hung on to the words of her doctor who’d said whatever function she got back in the first two years post injury she would retain for life.
So Alana set her sights on being able to walk again.
”It wasn’t until the end of my first year of college, the two year mark came and nothing had changed, everything hit me hard.Alana NicholsAdaptive Sporting Oracle
She realised that life in a wheelchair was her new normal and it sucked. Just when everything should be starting afresh, Alana felt like she was stuck in a nightmare.
“I was really mad about it, college is like the next new chapter where anything is possible, you’re meeting new people and going to parties, and none of that was happening for me.”
Disillusioned with life and herself, she withdrew into herself, not wanting to be seen. Depression sunk in. Then in what she calls a God moment, everything changed again.
“I was taking a shortcut through the gym, and I came across 10 people playing a scrimmage in wheelchair basketball.”
Alana’s jaw dropped. Remember, this was back in the early 2000s, before Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – she had no idea about the adaptive community or that adaptive sports even existed.
”Being newly injured, everyone was tip toeing around me, but I was a three sport athlete, I was into contact, I was a tough chick, and I wanted to be treated that way.Alana NicholsAdaptive Sporting Oracle
Alana couldn’t get over seeing people her own age, in wheelchairs, playing such an aggressive sport. The players noticed her potential immediately, and later that same day she was trying out her first basketball chair.
“I immediately felt more athletic sitting in the chair.”
Starting wheelchair basketball was not without its challenges though. Alana found it frustrating to push a chair and bounce the ball at the same time, or shoot the ball without using any power from her legs. But seeing other folks in either the same position or worse making it work she realised she had no more excuses.
“This is it. I have to be the best I can with what I have.”
One thing led to another and before she knew it she was accepted into a program at the University of Arizona to play for an all-women’s team. The first two weeks of the program consisted of intense wheelchair skills, leaving her sore and tired but more in love with sport and activity than ever. She felt alive.
By the end of the year she tried for the US Paralympic team and was soon representing her country in Beijing in 2008.
A broke college student, living off food stamps and disability benefits, she paid her way into her athletic career with help from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. They bought her first basketball chair, which allowed her to get onto the Paralympic team. Once on the team all athletes are given a stipend to cover food, travel and accommodation.
In the meantime, she was a typical university student, going to parties, sleeping too long, drinking too much. All in all, moving to Arizona was a great decision – a university with a large adaptive community helped Alana feel at home, accepted, and gave her the confidence to own her disability.
At this stage Alana didn’t really have time for relationships. She decided pretty early on if she were to meet someone, they would have to be an open minded person, who understood her situation.
”It’s not until you really get a hold of your own sense of self and what love really looks like that dating happens. And that’s a different journey for everyoneAlana NicholsAdaptive Sporting Oracle
Once she made the Paralympic team her career as an athlete started to take off. She began networking, approaching sponsors, who saw great potential in her. Soon Alana was taking on public speaking gigs, sharing her story with as many people as she could, from 30 second sales pitches, to 45 minute keynote speeches.
“Practising what it felt like to brand myself and help other people know what adaptive sports are and understand them in a way I felt was appropriate.”
She started off with Hartford, an insurance company who sold disability insurance on a commercial level. After winning gold in Beijing in 2008, Alana changed tack, going on to join the Alpine Ski Paralympic team, where she won four medals in Vancouver in 2010. This would see her make history as the first US woman to win gold in the winter and summer games.
“That’s when doors started to swing with big sponsors, Nike, then Visa, the Hilton, BMW, things started rolling in.”
Being associated with big brands as a Paralympian was a big deal, but being in the public eye isn’t always easy.
“Your public persona, it’s like an extra weight to carry. It’s a different version of who you really are, not any less valid… but it was a really hard thing to embrace for a while.”
In 2012, she hit the wall. Training for basketball, alpine skiing and travelling around with her sponsors, she had her fingers in too many pies.
“I was constantly worried about injuries. I needed to be sure I was doing the right thing – was I spreading myself too thin? I didn’t want to be mediocre at two sports instead of mastering one.”
But in the end Alana pulled it off, but wasn’t as successful as she hoped to be at the London games where her team came fourth. In 2014, she found herself suffering a broken shoulder which required full rotator cuff replacement surgery.
”I dislocated it after hitting a boulder, it was out of place for 2 hours. Breaking my back was nothing compared to this.Alana NicholsAdaptive Sporting Oracle
Overall her health and well being struggled. Despite this, and already being a Paralympian in two tough sports she decided to try her hand at another. After discovering adaptive surfing during a trip to Hawaii, Alana couldn’t get enough. She was living in Colorado and devised a plan to move to California where she made the Paralympic sprint kayak team, just so she could continue surfing on the side.
Sprint kayak was challenging in a way Alana hadn’t experienced before. She found herself working harder than ever, but she says it was a real blessing.
“After all my success in sport, to just focus on the process and really enjoying what it meant to be in the water everyday.”
Now, in 2019, she finds herself 29 weeks pregnant. So far, Alana finds it not too dissimilar to an able-bodied person’s pregnancy.
“The first trimester is nauseous, second trimester you start showing, start to gain weight. Found a lot of the differences for me was a lot of back pain, that comes from sitting for a long time.”
Now 25 pounds heavier, she can’t really bend over and transferring off the ground is a lot harder. Otherwise, the biggest challenges Alana has faced so far has been navigating the medical system. As a 36 year old pregnant paraplegic she is considered to be high risk despite her good health and great shape.
“The doctors want to give me extra treatment, multiple ultrasounds, sonograms.”
So Alana found herself having to advocate for what she actually wanted – a birth that was as natural as possible.
“I don’t want interventions just because I’ve been pigeon-holed into this category.”
Her plan for the birth is to have it in the hospital with two midwives, with the appropriate amount of medical help that’s needed. At least, this way, if she decides to have a second child with partner Roy Tuscany (pictured above), she knows what works and what doesn’t and may be able to have the water birth she initially wanted.
In actual fact one of the hardest things about her pregnancy has been having not being able to surf regularly.
“I’m so dependent on being active for my mental health, it’s difficult being sidelined.”
With her outlets in the water or the mountains, Alana finds herself having to return to training in the gym again where she has to be extremely creative with what she can do.
“I can’t bend over, everything has to be at shoulder height or above.”
But luckily she got to return to the ocean on 18 May during an adaptive surfing camp with the High Fives Foundation, run by her partner Roy.
Goals have always been a big part of it for Alana. Whether that’s the goal of making the Paralympic team in four years’ time, or having weekly training goals, it’s been hugely beneficial in her journey to break things down into achievable chunks.
“If you try to climb a huge mountain in one go it’s very difficult, if not impossible. Set goals, break it down week by week, it’s more achievable that way.”
A born risk taker, Alana loves trying to find the edge is, and over the years has taught herself to set fear aside.
”You need a certain numbness to fear to be able to push out of the start gate in a downhill race and go 70 miles per hour on a mountain on a mono ski.Alana NicholsAdaptive Sporting Oracle
While she understands the consequences at stake, she has built enough confidence in her skill set to know she can do it.
“When it’s a huge 8-foot set of waves, that are bigger, more powerful than me I’m confident in the strength in my body and my knowledge of water to navigate it.”
Her lasting advice, particularly to other young women with disability is to be true to yourself.
“I’m more proud of who I am as a woman with a disability now, more than ever, and the challenges I’ve overcome.”
When she was 17 and newly injured all she remembers was the shame she felt, but since then she’s owned and embraced who she is.
“Give yourself credit for what you have don’t and experienced and don’t let society define who you are.”
If you’d rather listen than read…
Listen to the Podcast with Alana Nichols now.