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.