DENVER (AP) – Paralympian Alana Nichols calls them “pinch-me moments,” when she can’t quite believe she is actually in a particular situation.
Like when she rolled down the red carpet at the ESPY Awards or rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Or when she spoke at schools for Michelle Obama and spent the day traveling in a motorcade with the first lady.
And especially when she received her gold medal in wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. And again after capturing two more golds in sit-skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.
All this, she never could’ve imagined after being paralyzed from the waist down in 2000 while attempting a backflip on her snowboard.
That’s why when she talks to disabled children, her message never wavers: This is just the beginning.
Maybe she didn’t buy that back then, but she fully embraces it now.
These days, the 31-year-old Nichols is even taking on a new challenge – sprint kayak racing, which will make its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. She is retiring from basketball and putting her skiing career on hold in an effort to make the team.
“When you believe in something, it creates the possible,” said Nichols, who lives in Denver. “That’s most important thing – imagining it can happen.”
Her life was altered on Nov. 19, 2000. All that summer she imagined doing a backflip on her snowboard. So when snow blanketed the mountain near Durango, she eagerly headed into the backcountry.
On her first try, Nichols over-rotated and landed on rocks, shattering her spine in three places. Emergency workers had to airlift her out, and she went through months of rehab, including a stint at Craig Hospital in Denver. That is where six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken-Rouen went after being paralyzed from the waist down following an all-terrain vehicle crash.
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Van Dyken-Rouen said one of the challenging parts of her rehab process was getting back into the pool, because it was so familiar to her.
For Nichols, it was softball. She tried to play adaptive softball, but it wasn’t the same.
Fast forward to the fall of 2002. She was taking classes at the University of New Mexico and happened to take a short cut through the gym when she saw a group of wheelchair athletes playing 5-on-5 basketball. Not just playing, but playing fierce and fouling hard.
Perfect for her.
“All of a sudden, I didn’t have an excuse to be bummed out and lazy,” she said. “I was challenged.”
She quickly picked up the game, making the 2004 Paralympics team as an alternate. She got her shot in Beijing – a shooting guard who charged down the lane with no fear.
While training for Beijing, a thought hit her – why not try skiing, too? On winter breaks from basketball, she trained on her mono-ski back in Durango, about a 45-minute commute from her hometown of Farmington, New Mexico.
One day, she vocalized her aspirations to a ski coach, saying she wanted to train even more aggressively to make the Vancouver squad.
“As any logical person would, they said that wasn’t possible, having only had limited days under my belt,” she recalled. “But I had a childlike faith way I could do it.”
She did, too, winning two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in Vancouver.
She was back in the starting gates for the Sochi Games last winter, taking silver in the downhill. She then wiped out in the super-G and ended up taking a helicopter ride to the hospital to fix a dislocated jaw and get six stitches in her chin.
A few days later, she returned for the giant slalom and took fourth despite catching an edge and doing a 360-degree turn on the course.
That kind of resolve – along with all her speaking engagements – recently earned her induction into the “Superman Hall of Heroes,” which honors people who make a difference in the lives of others each day. Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal is a member. So is the late Christopher Reeve, who played the “Man of Steel” and was paralyzed in an equestrian competition in 1995.
This summer, Nichols spent some time in Hawaii “soul searching” about her athletic career. While there, she dabbled in surfing.
Turns out, she was a natural, winning the first contest she entered.
Since surfing isn’t a Paralympic event – not yet, anyway – she took up the closest thing: paddle racing, with the hope of making the team in the sprint events. She doesn’t have her own kayak – she’s working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation to get one – so she spends most of her time building up endurance in the gym.
And when she’s not training, she’s traveling. Here’s just a small example of her jam-packed schedule: In San Diego last weekend for a triathlon and to speak to kids with disabilities. Then, off to New York for a Nike event and back West to Seattle for a kayak paddle race before finally heading home.
“When you’re newly disabled, you think life’s over,” Nichols said. “But when you believe in your possibilities, anything can happen.
“I’ve had a lot of pinch-me moments.”
– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
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