Paralympian Alana Nichols: A Golden Mono Skiing Debut

Off the mountain, Alana Nichols has a magnetism that draws people in. On the race course, she’s a force to reckon with.

In her first Paralympic Winter Games and less than two years after starting to mono ski competitively, Alana has dominated in the Women’s Sitting category. Her gold medal in the Giant Slalom represented Team USA’s first gold of 2010. She added a second gold on Thursday in the Downhill, beating silver medalist and teammate Laurie Stephens by nearly five seconds, and won silver in today’s Super-G, edged out only by the final skier, Claudia Loesch of Austria.

Competing on the international stage is nothing new to Alana. As a member of the women’s wheelchair basketball team, she won gold at the Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China. This week’s wins make her the first female Paralympian to claim gold in both the Winter and Summer Paralympic Games.

From Wheelchair Basketball to Ski Racing

Alana first started mono skiing in 2002, two years after she broke her back in a snowboarding accident. For several years, she skied recreationally, but didn’t set her sights on Vancouver until 2008. After returning from the Beijing Paralympics and moving from Alabama to Winter Park, Colorado, the world of ski racing remained an unknown. It was her fellow teammates who made the transition work.

“Even though ski racing is an individual sport, we’re still very much a team,” Alana said.

Compared to basketball, where 12 girls work as a unit at all times, the solo training program of racing took some getting used to. But it wasn’t long before she got into a comfortable routine and the intensity of training five days a week.

U.S. mono skier Carl Burnett said it’s humbling to see Alana progress because she can accomplish in a matter of weeks what takes him a season to figure out.

Alana attributes her success to the fact that before her accident, she was a snowboarder, so knows what an edge feels like and “how to rail a turn.” Plus, during seven years of wheelchair basketball training, she developed all the core muscles (a strong upper body) and movements (like how to engage your obliques) needed for mono skiing.

“I came into skiing ready to just learn it,” she explained. “I didn’t have to develop my body. I was just a sponge and took it all in.”

Add to that her natural competitiveness and you’ve got the makings of Team USA’s latest golden girl.

“She listens and executes,” said Ray Watkins, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. “She has the mind of a winner.”

Paralympic Dream Come True

Leading up to the Paralympic Games, Alana shared that a big part of her experience in Whistler is skiing for her brother, who passed away last June.

“After you lose someone, you want to give up on everything,” she said. “I know he would’ve wanted me to keep skiing. It’s huge motivation for me.”

Following her initial first place finish this week, there was no question about the impact of the gold medal. Her uninhibited tears and grace revealed a humility that perfectly balances her competitive side.

With three medals and a true appreciation for everyone around her – from family and coaches to fellow teammates and course workers – Alana is turning heads in Whistler. She’s an athlete to keep an eye on, both in future Paralympic competition and as an important contributor to the Paralympic movement.

Alana realizes that there are so many women with disabilities who don’t realize their potential. “I like to show people that whatever their difference is or their disability, they can get out and do whatever they can with it,” she said. “That’s one of my driving forces.”

Alana competes in her final race, the Super Combined, on Saturday, March 20. For more on Alana and Team USA, visit US Paralympics.


Acquired Adrenaline

During the 2008-2009 ski season, Danelle Umstead raced in her first speed event. She side slipped the entire course and “didn’t even point them” (referring to aiming her skis downhill.) It was the scariest thing she’d ever done. She’d never do it again.

Fast forward one year and she has a whole new perspective. Every time she gets to the bottom of the race course, she wants to go again.

“I like to go really, really fast,” she said, explaining how her strongest races are now the speed events: the Downhill and the Super-G. “It’s an acquired adrenaline.”

In Whistler, B.C. this week, Danelle will prove her love of speed in her first Paralympic Games.

Her Trusted Guide

At the age of 13, Danelle was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition where the retina progressively degenerates and eventually causes blindness. Now 38, she has “spotted vision” and can only see up to five to eight feet in front of her, and even then, only contrasting colors without any level of detail.

As a visually impaired (VI) skier, Danelle relies on a guide – husband and best friend Rob Umstead – to help her navigate the course. Compared to guides she’s worked with in the past, “there’s a different type of trust and experience with my husband,” she said. “We have 100 per cent trust and can only get better and better from here.”

Rob wears a combination of a dark racing suit and bright orange tee shirt and bib, creating a high-contrast target that Danelle can spot as she skis behind. Danelle’s ability to get down the course also depends on motorcycle headsets, which they both wear attached to their ski helmets. Rob is constantly communicating about where to turn and what she’ll feel with the terrain, keeping her on course even if she loses sight of him.

“It’s like he’s reading a book, step by step down the mountain,” Danelle said. “He’s talking in my ear and keeping an open line of communication.”

Vision for Gold

Danelle came into the 2010 Paralympics after a promising season, where she and Rob won the Globe as overall World Cup champions in the VI classification. They also earned the Super G Globe, took second place in the Super Combined and Downhill, and finished third in Giant Slalom (GS.)

She’s still chasing that same success with her Paralympic debut. In Sunday’s Slalom, she caught a tip and lost a ski on a gate, posting a DNF (did not finish.) Tuesday, after a strong run through most of the GS course, she fell on her second run, hiked back to the gate and finished in ninth place. The weather played a role in her fall, as the incessant rain hammering her goggles blocked the little vision that she does have.

With the technical races behind her, she looks forward to her stronger speed events, sharing that “my vision is different every day, but you just have to adapt and move on.”

“This will all be worth it if it’s sunny on the Downhill day,” Rob said.

Downhill races are scheduled for Thursday, March 18; Super-G for Friday, March 19; Super Combined (a combination of Super-G and Slalom) for Sunday, March 21.

Shared Dreams

After first learning to ski in 2000 in Taos, New Mexico, Danelle now lives and trains full-time in Winter Park, Colo. When they’re not skiing, Danelle and Rob find every excuse to get outdoors to hike, camp, tandem bike and spend time with their two year old son.

She gets goose bumps thinking about what they have created as a team: “I’m lucky I get to go on this journey with my husband. He helped make my dreams come true and now they’re his dreams too.”

Thinking about the fact that one day she will go completely blind, Danelle admits that 90% of the time she’s strong. But there are days she’s not. “I appreciate every bit of light that comes in through my eyes,” she said. “There will be darkness. I just don’t know if it’s tomorrow or another five years from now.”

Since Rob quit his job to train full-time with Danelle, the husband-wife team relies on support from sponsors and donations. For more information, visit Vision4Gold.

Let the Paralympic Games Begin

The Olympics have wrapped up, but the Games are far from over in Vancouver and Whistler. This Saturday, March 13, the Winter Paralympic Games begin, with more than 600 athletes from 40 countries competing for gold.

The Paralympics – often mistakenly called the Para-Olympics – are for elite athletes with physical disabilities.

Joe Kusumoto Photography (

An alpine skier who’s visually impaired relies on her guide as her “sight” to stay on course. A soldier who lost both of his legs in Iraq races on prosthetic legs in his first Paralympic competition. A Nordic athlete swaps her wheelchair for a sit-ski for the 10 kilometer classic cross country race.

Along with visually impaired (VI), amputee and spinal injuries, athlete disability categories include Cerebral Palsy, which affects movement, reflexes and posture, as well as “les autres,” encompassing physical disabilities such as Dwarfism and Multiple Sclerosis.

Held at the same competition venues as the Olympics, the Paralympic Winter Games feature five sports: alpine skiing (downhill, Super-G, Super Combined, Giant Slalom and Slalom), cross country skiing, biathlon, sled hockey (also known as ice sledge hockey), and wheelchair curling. Both alpine and Nordic are further separated into “standing,” “sitting” and “visually impaired” categories to fairly match athletes against like abilities.

“Every day, every year, every Games, we continue to break thresholds and increase in excellence,” said Charlie Huebner, Chief of Paralympics, U.S. Olympic Committee. “Competitors are getting stronger, sports are developing and performances are phenomenal.”

13 women and 37 men will represent Team USA in 2010, and while they certainly have podium potential, Huebner says that “having the team represent our country and perform at the best of their abilities is what success will be.”

Building Community, Developing Athletes

For the U.S. Paralympics, establishing community-level resources for kids with physical disabilities goes hand in hand with developing a pipeline of future Paralympians. The organization’s Paralympic Sport Clubs create a healthier population of kids with physical disabilities by offering them the chance to participate in daily activity and sport.

“With physical activity comes engagement,” says Huebner, “and we see every day how being integrated as part of the peer process has positive social impact on those individuals.”

Continued emphasis on developing programs around the country will help the organization grow from 114 clubs today to their goal of 250 by 2012. And with that growth, chances are we’ll see a natural pipeline of elite athletes who may one day aspire to Paralympic dreams.

Where to Watch

Both in the U.S. and around the world, Huebner observes that the Paralympic movement is making more of an impact, leading to further integration of programming with the Olympics. This year, for example, the Olympic men’s and women’s hockey coaches and the Paralympic sled hockey coaches were named at the same time.

While U.S. broadcast of the Paralympics does not yet match that of the Olympics, coverage continues to improve thanks to increased interest from the American public, and increased support from individual and corporate sponsors.

This year, you can catch Opening Ceremonies and recaps on NBC Sports and Universal Sports:

  • NBC Sports Opening Ceremony highlights – Saturday, March 13, 1:00-2:00 p.m. ET
  • NBC Sports Paralympics recap – Saturday, April 10, 3:00-5:00 p.m. ET
  • Universal Sports nightly two hour program – Monday, March 15–Tuesday March 23, 7:00 p.m. ET (re-air at 11:00 p.m. ET)
  • U.S. Paralympic Team – daily video and news highlights
  • Paralympic Sport TV – live daily coverage online

Additional resources:

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life

In the late 1960s and 70s, the male-dominated climbing establishment shunned Arlene Blum. During a time when women weren’t welcome because they couldn’t carry heavy loads or handle the effects of high altitude, she was ostracized for her sex alone. Hard to believe, that was less than 50 years ago.

Blum’s Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life tells her story of lost opportunities – both in the mountaineering world and her own upbringing – that led to accomplishment.

In many ways, she’s the “every woman,” describing trouble with relationships, how to balance a desire for adventure with career and financial needs, and family struggles that created both insecurity and drive.

On the other hand, Blum stands alone in her experiences. She received her PhD in chemistry, conducted protein folding studies that contributed to breakthroughs in AIDS research, and investigated flame retardants in kids’ sleepwear, helping to ban the use of such carcinogens. Alongside her academic feats, she also broke trail for female mountaineers: she led the first women’s climbing team on Denali (“The Great One”), was the first American woman to attempt Everest and set a world altitude record for American women on Annapurna I.

What sets this book apart from other mountaineering memoirs is Blum’s humility.

Read the rest of the review at Women’s Adventure Magazine.