Hidden rocks can spell disaster for even the most skilled snowboarder. For University of Arizona alumna Alana Nichols, an icon of courage and excellence in Paralympic sports, that disaster came not just once, but twice.
Twice torn apart. Twice fighting her way back to Olympic-level competition.
If there's a gold medal for heart, Nichols, 31, has earned it, along with the five gold medals she has won in sports she always acknowledged carry high risks.
This month, Nichols competed in the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. On the first day of alpine skiing, she won the silver medal in the women's downhill competition. She crashed during the super-G and was airlifted to a hospital. Nichols suffered a concussion and required stitches to her chin but tweeted, "I am just fine."
First time down
At 17, Nichols was a high school senior in New Mexico – good in basketball and volleyball, but super in softball. The six feet of June snow in Durango, Colo., lured her to a day of backcountry snowboarding, until she back-flipped squarely onto a hidden rock, boots up.
She broke her back. Her spinal cord snapped.
"There are no words to describe it," she recalled from her training site in Colorado Springs. "It's a shocking, overwhelming thing to experience. That second, I was in shock and a lot of pain. I was confused. I couldn’t feel my feet or legs. I didn’t feel the edge of my boots. 'I think I'm paralyzed,' I said. Funny. I had no idea what that really meant."
First time fighting back
A few years later, she found herself rolling through the automatic doors of the UA’s elaborate Disability Resource Center, one of the nation’s premier sites to restart a life after injury.
"I was still mourning my loss. I had planned for a softball scholarship. I was very disappointed and very upset about life," Nichols said.
But the days at the UA worked magic. She started playing the intense, bruising game of wheelchair basketball, and was named to the U.S. national team in 2005. The next year, she helped her team win a silver medal at the world championships.
"At that point, it was a really transformative time," she said. "I found so many opportunities to grow as an athlete and as a student. The resources were amazing. And I was feeling accepted, part of a community. The UA absolutely gave me hope."
With a scholarship and grants, she learned how to fashion a new life that would include world-class stardom in the ranks of disabled athletes. She graduated in 2006 with a degree in special education, rehabilitation and school psychology – a rigorous program in the College of Education.
By 2008, she achieved a dream she now admits was "ridiculously big," playing for the United States in her first Paralympics, moving up to that level at a speed her coaches had doubted was possible. In Beijing, with skills imparted by UA coaches, she helped the USA wheelchair basketball team win a gold medal.
Then Nichols set her sights high again, shifting to winter sports. She quickly excelled and in February 2009 beat a Paralympic gold medalist to place first in the super giant slalom at a North American Cup event. She competed in alpine skiing at the Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010, becoming the first American woman to win gold in both summer and winter games. She won gold in both downhill and giant slalom, silver in the super giant slalom, and bronze in super combined.
In London in 2012, sadly, the USA wheelchair basketball team placed fourth. No sixth medal, not yet.
"I didn't want to end on that note," she said. She aimed for success at the Paralympics in Sochi in March 2014.
Second time down
In June 2013, with a berth on the U.S. team at stake, Nichols was working out hard on the year-round snow on Mount Hood in Oregon.
"I was on track for Sochi. Everything was normal," she said. Skiing down a slope where the snow was thin, she somehow landed, again, on the rocks.
"Some of the snow had melted. There were exposed rocks and I happened to ski into one of them."
Incredibly, the fates dealt her another severe test – the fall tore three ligaments away from her right shoulder, and she broke her ankle in three places.
"It was a pretty big accident, and a big setback. I was already down two limbs."
Second time fighting back
She underwent full rotator cuff surgery and began months of rehab in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympics Training Center.
"With one arm in a sling, I was left with one working limb," she said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I had to get my range of motion back with my new shoulder."
After months of rehab with, as she said, "the top doctors and physical therapists in the world," by November she was ready to return to the snow. Having lost months of training, she faced one of her greatest challenges yet.
"I knew I was behind," she said, "but I didn’t doubt that I would catch up."
That spirit stems from her days at the UA.
"It changed my perspective on life," recalled Nichols, who is from Farmington, in northwest New Mexico. "Before playing at the UA, I didn't realize I still had an opportunity to compete as a college athlete. The UA offered me that opportunity. I met the most amazing people ever. I was celebrated at the UA. I was really excited when I got there. I found my potential, and it has really motivated me."
Nichols credits Derek Brown, her coach for women's wheelchair basketball at the UA Adaptive Athletics Program, for her fast start.
"He taught me all I needed to know to make the Paralympic team. He was great on the fundamentals."
The UA Disability Resource Center has helped thousands of students find their way back.
"It helps them to know they are not alone as a newly injured person," Nichols said.
As an athlete with a ringing, enthusiastic voice, she has become an inspirational spokeswoman for the role of women and girls in sports and a fixture at United States Olympic Committee media events, always giving credit to her fresh start at the UA.
"My disability has less power over me and what I can do," Nichols said. "They really showed me what was possible."