Alana Nichols has already firmly etched herself into the history books.
The three-time Paralympic champion — once in wheelchair basketball and twice in alpine skiing — was the first female U.S. Paralympian to win gold at both a summer and winter Games and is known to “butt-kick” any sporting challenge she takes on.
Most athletes would retire after a feat like hers.
But Nichols is now making every other two-sport Paralympic phenom look lax.
Last month, Nichols qualified for the Paralympic Games in her third sport, stamping her ticket to Rio de Janeiro at the ICF Paracanoe World Championships in Duisburg, Germany.
In September, she’ll attempt to become the first U.S. athlete — Olympic or Paralympic — to win a gold medal in three different sports.
Nichols earned a trip to her fifth Paralympic Games by virtue of her personal-best time of 56.246 in the women’s 200-meter KL2 semifinal, the classification for athletes with partial trunk or leg function. She finished eighth in the final in 1:00.647, which was 6.956 seconds behind the winning time of Great Britain’s Emma Wiggs.
Despite little knowledge of where she ranked internationally due to the sport still being so new, the three-time ESPY nominee made qualifying for paracanoe’s Paralympic debut look relatively seamless.
“The hard part about it was not knowing where I was in relation to the athletes I was competing against for those spots,” she said. “I really just had to put the blinders on and focus on having my best race regardless of what the end result was. The big takeaway was just to worry about the process, not focus on the finish. It’ll take care of itself.”
Nichols has had her share of tragedies and triumphs in life. She rebounded from a snowboarding accident in 2000 that left her paralyzed from the waist down by becoming a Paralympic champion in wheelchair basketball at the Beijing 2008 Games.
She racked up two gold medals, one silver and one bronze in alpine skiing at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, and she came away with a silver medal from the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games despite a terrifying crash on the first day of training runs.
Transitioning to a paddle sport has been laborious, too.
“Wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing are skill sports. They require a ton of coordination and talent, whereas paracanoe is more about being a hamster on the wheel, endurance and how much you can condition your body to perform,” Nichols explained.
“For me, it’s just changing my mindset to that repetition and to producing the same technique over and over and over again.”
Nichols’ training regimen for paracanoe differs drastically from the other two sports. Rather than always depending on her arms, Nichols is now fully reliant on her core and lat muscles to propel herself in the boat, making her daily workout program a lot different.
“There’s a lot of volume and endurance involved even though my sprint is only 200 meters,” Nichols said. “There are big pieces of my hour-long training sessions where I’m maxed out, using 90 percent of my exertion. It’s been a challenge for me, and absolutely the hardest sport that I’ve done so far.”
And while plenty of athletes who’ve transitioned to the sport have had to learn to cope with the outdoor variables, Nichols has barely blinked an eye at the sky.
“Every venue’s different, and water can be warmer or colder, or softer and slower,” she said. “I paddle on salt water here in San Diego, so even moving from that to fresh water is different. In alpine skiing, I saw the worst that weather can get. I realize that everybody’s dealing with the weather, and it’s all about doing what you can with the situation.”
The 33-year-old has been cross-training on the water by surfing, a sport she said is “secretly her next move,” and one she’s trying to get on the Paralympic Games program as a member of the Athletes’ Advisory Commission for the Los Angeles 2024 bid.
Nichols will spend as much time on the water as on land over the next 100 days, trying not to think at all how much fun the Opening Ceremony might be.
“As a veteran athlete, I’m really lucky that I’m able to focus on the process rather than the end result,” she said. “I’m actually really looking forward to only having one event, which means I may be free to go watch some wheelchair basketball and other sports.”
With no international competitions remaining between now and the Paralympic Games in Rio — a city Nichols won gold in with the U.S. wheelchair basketball team at 2007 Parapan American Games — Nichols expects competition at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon to be full of surprises.
“I think that’s kind of the exciting part about this sport — you never know,” she said. “You show up and do your best, and you see how it shakes out.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.