Go For The Gold


Gold medalist Alana Nichols celebrates during the medal
ceremony for the women's sitting giant slalom for the Vancouver
2010 Paralympic Winter Games.

It's 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, and the fresh powder of the Austrian ski slopes is courting Alana Nichols. She'd love to be out there. In five minutes of talking to her you can tell she’s a busy soul, not one to let time idly pass, but today she needs her rest.

"I haven’t gotten much of it lately,” she laughs.

For the last month, as part of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team, she’s been trekking across Europe competing in the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup series. Airports. Hotels. Alarm clocks. Before this much-needed day of recuperation, she'd raced eight of the last nine days, making it to the podium three times. Not bad results for your average athlete. But Alana Nichols, by any stretch of the imagination, isn’t your average athlete.

After all, you're talking about one of America’s most celebrated Paralympians, a gold medalist in 2008, a double gold medalist in 2010, a double world champion in 2011, a three-time ESPY nominee and former Colorado Sports Woman of the Year. And oh by the way, she’s also the first American woman in history to earn a gold medal in both the summer and Paralympic Winter Games.

So what’s the problem this year? Why the shortage of podiums?

“Well, it’s pretty simple,” Nichols said. “I’m behind schedule.”

More specifically, after competing in this past summer’s London Games with the U.S. Paralympic Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team, Nichols has been playing catch-up on the ski scene, trying to combine a hellish competition schedule with a double-time training regimen in hopes of defending both her downhill and super giant slalom titles at the upcoming IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain. It’s frustrating, obviously, for an athlete of Nichols’ caliber to be enduring these early season struggles, but patience, she understands, is essential.

“This is the first year I’ve focused on basketball and skiing at the same time,” she said, “and the quick transition has proven difficult. I have to swallow my pride a little bit and remind myself that my teammates and the women I’m competing against have been training full-time all year long, while I’ve been cross training. Skiing is a very technical sport, and at this point I just need more time on the hill.”

Nichols describes herself as a “speed tactician” who has always been much stronger in the downhill and super G than the more technical giant slalom and slalom, though her 2010 Paralympic gold medal in the giant slalom would suggest otherwise. But see, that’s the thing with Nichols: she almost doesn’t even consider results when evaluating herself as an athlete, for at her core she seems to be driven not so much by medals and trophies, but rather by an intangible, intrinsic thirst for improvement.

“I set small goals as I go,” Nichols said. “Every day I try to get better. Right now I’m working diligently on the more technical aspects that will make me a better all-around skier.”

It’s worth noting that Nichols, fairly predictably, is trending upward, as since the eight races in nine days she’s recorded a second-place finish in the super G and a first place in the downhill in Tarvisio, Italy. And whatever kinks are lingering, you get the distinct impression that she’ll have long worked them out by the time she embarks upon her first run at the world championships, for athletes like Nichols, athletes with world-class pride and pedigree, have a funny way of rising to the occasion.

Alana Nichols competes in the women's sitting downhill at the
Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games on March 10, 2010.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that she’ll be more than familiar with the scene in Spain. She’s been there before. She’s seen and raced the hill,

a fast track that effectively caters to her strengths. And perhaps more importantly, she’s already been through the hoopla of a world championship and Paralympic Winter Games. She has the security that comes with success at the highest level and knows exactly what to expect with events of this magnitude.

Still, Nichols points out, notable challenges are certainly in store, not the least of which will be Nichols’ teammates and in all likelihood stiffest competition, Laurie Stephens and Stephani Victor, both of whom have decorated résumés that include world championship and Paralympic gold medals.

“I think the world championship and the (2014) Paralympic seasons are going to be both easier and more difficult,” Nichols said.  “On one hand, I have a lot less to worry about now that I've been to Europe multiple times. Again, I know what the race hill looks like in La Molina, and I will get a chance to see the race hill in Sochi (Sochi, Russia is the site of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games). And I generally know how both races will be run.

“On the other hand,” she continued, “I have two world championship titles and two Paralympic gold medals to defend, which can add a little bit of pressure.”

And while we’re talking pressure, Nichols is dealing with the added weight of this being, perhaps, her last run.

“Right now, pushing for the gold in 2014, I love it, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else,” Nichols said. “But the mental exhaustion is real. As an athlete, always asking yourself what you can do to be better, it wears you down. I’m pushing 30, and at some point my life is going to have to take a little bit of a turn.”

But that’s for another day. Right now Nichols’ vision is narrow. It’s only about the world championships and Paralympic Winter Games. That’s where she’ll have the opportunity to add to her already historic legacy, though she refuses to get complacent in the glow of her previous accomplishments.

“I like to remind myself that what has happened in the past doesn't matter. Every race is different. And (I take comfort in knowing) that when the time comes, I’ll be as prepared as I need to be.”