The first time Alana Nichols had a medal draped around her neck was a moment she never would have imagined.
It was at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, and Nichols was on the U.S. wheelchair basketball team that went undefeated, beating Germany in the final.
“I remember being on the podium with my 11 other teammates, and after the buzzer sounded in the gold-medal game it was such a sigh of relief, but also an incredible experience of just pure joy,” she said. “It was unbelievable that it had all come true and, you know, I think there aren’t really words to describe the emotion that you have.
“But I think if I have to find words, it would be incredibly proud, and it was one of those pinch-me moments. I couldn’t believe that I was on the podium and receiving a gold medal.”
Nichols’ podium experience came eight years after a snowboarding accident left her paralyzed from the waist down.
An athlete all her life up to that point, she had hoped to play softball in college. Instead, at age 17, she was in a wheelchair.
But Nichols was determined to stay active, and that determination led her through one door, and then another. She played wheelchair basketball in college, and that led to her making the U.S. Paralympic Team. That success as an adaptive athlete led her back to the mountains, where she became an accomplished mono-skier.
Two years after earning her gold medal at Beijing, Nichols became the first U.S. woman to win gold in both winter and summer Paralympics. In Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010 she actually won four medals in alpine skiing: gold in both the giant slalom and downhill, a silver in the super-G and a bronze in super combined.
Then, in 2012, she helped the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team defend its Paralympic championship in London.
Today, Nichols, 30, is a six-time Paralympic medalist and a member of the U.S. alpine ski team bound for the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games, eager to add to her list of accomplishments. As she told the Denver Post recently, she’s not defending the medals she won at Vancouver.
“Those are already mine. I earned them,” she said.
But aside from being excited to ski in her second Winter Games, Nichols wants to do more than just go downhill faster than her competitors or have medals draped around her neck.
Nichols, who lives in Farmington, N.M., is working to help pave the way for other athletes who have had to overcome ailments and accidents.
Nichols has been selected as one of nine Olympic or Paralympic ambassadors for Citi’s Every Step of the Way program that was launched in 2012 and will carry through the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
With Every Step of the Way, Citi has donated $500,000 to go toward a variety of initiatives to help aspiring Olympians and Paralympians. In addition, Citi’s program will help raise funds to be used for the initiatives that are targeted by those ambassadors.
In Nichols’ case, the initiative she is supporting is the Paralympic Champions Fund, which raises funds for athletes pursuing the dream of participating in the Paralympic Games. It also aims to increase the availability of physical activity opportunities for physically disabled individuals. (Click here to help Nichols reach her goal and support the Paralympic Champions Fund.)
Nichols says Paralympic sport “is absolutely life-changing.”
“I thought my life was over after my accident, and I really didn’t know that I could have a whole new life full of Paralympic dreams and potential and the possibility of winning medals and traveling and being the best that I can be as a competitive athlete,” she said.
She says the Paralympic Champions Fund is crucial, because so many aspiring Paralympians don’t have the money they need for training, equipment and travel. Every dollar contributed to the fund, she said, is a huge boost.
“We can’t train as long, we can’t travel as much and we won’t be able to compete as well because we won’t have that support,” Nichols said. “Without the Paralympic Champions Fund, we won’t be the best in the world.”
Nichols, meanwhile, has recovered from a serious ski crash in June of 2013 that put her participation in the Sochi Games in doubt. In the crash, she dislocated her shoulder and tore three ligaments.
At first, some doctors and trainers told her there was no way she’d be ready to compete at Sochi.
“So you know I, of course, was bound and determined to get to Sochi one way or another, and I am just really fortunate that my shoulder has followed suit and that I am able to go,” she said.
Now, on the eve of the Sochi Games, Nichols isn’t predicting another four medals — just that she’ll give it her best shot.
“If I just work with what I have when I am there and do the best that I can, I’ll be happy with myself either way if I perform the best that I can,” she said.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.