Don't count on Alana Nichols to slow down for long.
Nichols, a Farmington, N.M., native and two-sport phenomenon in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing, is aiming for her fourth Paralympic Games appearance in Sochi, Russia, this March.
When a 2002 snowboarding accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, Nichols, a lifelong athlete, found her calling in Paralympic sport. After winning basketball gold at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, Nichols earned four medals in alpine skiing at the Vancouver Games, including golds in giant slalom and downhill. With her victories, Nichols became the first female in history to earn gold medals at both the summer and winter Paralympic Games.
After a fourth-place finish for Team USA in wheelchair basketball at the London Games, Nichols shifted her focus back to the slopes, spending the summer training in Mount Hood, Ore., in preparation for the Sochi Games.
But Nichols’ plans were thrown through a loop when she tore three ligaments in her shoulder in a training accident at Mount Hood. At first, it looked as if returning to top form in time for Sochi might be a long shot.
She didn’t let that thought linger for long.
Refusing to give up on her dreams of Sochi gold, Nichols spent the next several months in rehabilitation at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. She navigated her recovery carefully while maintaining her fitness off the slopes through gym and pool workouts.
“I owe a huge thank you to all of my physical therapists and athletic trainers at the OTC in Colorado Springs,” Nichols said. “When I was at the OTC, I could get work done on my shoulder every day. They put in a lot of work to get me back to this level.”
By late fall, Nichols’ shoulder was healthy enough to transition slowly back to skiing, and she moved from Colorado Springs to her training home in Winter Park, Colo. She still puts her shoulder through rehabilitation on her own every day, but her focus is gradually shifting from recovery to the competition season.
Nichols’ first races back from injury were on home turf at the Winter Park, Colo.,NorAm Cup in early January. There, she hit the slopes in commanding fashion, earning a second-place finish in slalom and a victory in giant slalom.
A week later, it was time for the big leagues.
Nichols and the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team headed north for the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup in Panorama, B.C., from Jan. 8-14. The races marked Nichols’ first appearance on the international stage since injury and her first chance to preview the international competition before Sochi.
Though she was thrilled to be racing at a high level again, Nichols didn’t go into the races with lofty expectations.
“My goal was to be smart and make intelligent decisions with regard to skiing the downhill and super-G races,” Nichols said. “Physically I felt prepared to race, but I needed to be put in a real race to know that for sure. As it turns out, my arm was strong enough to race and is getting stronger every day.”
In fact, she came away with two silver medals in downhill and super-G and a bronze in super combined.
“It's an interesting process coming back from an injury,” Nichols said. “I think it takes a certain amount of faith, and that’s what I had to have going into my first downhill race. Looking back at the week, I am really happy with how it went for me. Each day I made significant improvements.”
Nichols’ pre-Sochi campaign isn’t over yet, as she heads to Copper Mountain, Colo., for another world cup from Jan. 17-20.
She’s got the racing bug back, and now she has the confidence to boot.
“One important takeaway that I gained from Panorama is the new understanding of my body’s limits,” Nichols said. “I know now that I am strong enough to hold certain positions with my shoulder that I was unsure of before. I gained a fair bit of confidence from the first world cup races, and I’ll absolutely take that to Copper with me.”
As a Colorado transplant, Nichols was happy with the powder-like conditions at Panorama and is hoping for the same at Copper Mountain.
“If the snow is a little softer at Copper like it was in Panorama, that will favor me,” Nichols said. “I was born and raised as a ski racer on Colorado snow, and if the course has newer snow on it, it’s always better for me.”
The races at Copper begin Friday, with the first giant slalom run set for 9 a.m. MST. Full results from the world cup can be found at Teamsummit.org.
The U.S. Team that will compete in alpine skiing and snowboarding at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will be named in February. Rosters will be determined based on a points system that includes world cup results throughout the season.