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.


Between the Water Cube & The Birdsnest

I truly had such high hopes for blogging daily while I was traveling last month in China and Japan. The initial challenges with Internet access and (alas!) work got in the way of good intentions. So, in bits and pieces, I hope to recreate some of my favorite memories and experiences… especially now as I’m going through the pictures from this amazing adventure!

Blue Sky at the Water Cube

Blue Sky at the Water Cube

 Top 5 reasons why the Beijing Paralympics lived up to its “Amazing Awaits” tagline:

1) The People. No matter where you are in the world – no matter what the political or economic or religious situation/strife/mentality – it all comes down to the people. In Beijing, I encountered some of the most friendly and open people I’ve ever met, with contagious enthusiasm for whatever the moment had in store.

2) Unexpected Blue Sky Days. Note picture, which is not photoshopped.

3) The Venues. Yes, I am narrowly focused because I spent 95% of my time in – and working from! – the Water Cube (officially: National Aquatics Center), but the venues were phenomenal. The Cube was mesmorizing, especially seen from night with the outside bubble exterior changing from turquoise to violet amidst the festive music coming from the plaza.

4) Shooting Star. Yes, I actually saw a shooting star one night – and no, it was not a lead toy being thrown out a factory window as one friend accused! While we were there a total of 20 days, we had at least three clear nights of seeing stars. Granted, it was nowhere near what we get from our clear Colorado skies and the air wouldn’t even come close to an autumn day on the east coast, but hey, when you set your expectations low, you can be content with less than stellar outcomes. (However… don’t even get me started on the topic of low expectations when it comes to Palin!)

5. Photos. Topping my list of experiences during all of September was my walk between the Water Cube and the Birdsnest. Whether it was early morning with only a handful of people walking about and the fountain water show just warming up; or the evening walk back to the hotel with joyous music blaring, people posing for pictures everywhere you turned, little kids yelping as they ran through fountain dodging the spurts water…. I took my time and slowed down during that walk, taking in every moment and trying not to forget it. I’ve never seen so many people so unconditionally happy in one place. To me, the smiles, enthusiasm and simple appreciation for a new experience that I witnessed in that plaza epitomize my experience in Beijing.

Still pictures won’t do it justice, so check out Joe’s blog (the entry “Random acts of Happiness”) for a quick video.

The Show’s Not Over, Folks

Today’s news is all about the end of the Games. Yes, the Olympic Games closing ceremonies were last night. But the show’s not over…yet. In just a couple of weeks, another elite, international sporting contest will take center stage in Beijing: The Paralympics.

The Paralympics follows about two weeks after the Olympics and takes place in the same venues as the Olympic athletes recently occupied. Highly competitive, the Paralympic Games is for elite athletes with physical disabilities.

Jessica Long, Paralympic Gold Medalist

Jessica Long, Paralympic Gold Medalist

Unfortunately, the Paralympics is an under-reported event, especially in the U.S. media. While you won’t have access to 24/7 TV coverage of the US Paralympic Team, do keep an eye out for local newspaper coverage and broadcast stories.

A week from tomorrow, my husband and I will be traveling to Beijing to work the games, he as a photographer, me as a press officer for Paralympic swimming.

Even some of my closest friends (who know the work I do with US Paralympics) will tell people I’m going to the “Special Olympics.” No, the Paralympics is very different: the Special Olympics are for people with intellectual disabilities with a focus on medals for all, while the Paralympics is for elite athletes with the same Gold-Silver-Bronze medal hierarchy as the Olympics. There is a place for both, but I am always trying to clarify the difference in order to introduce more people to the stories, people and competition that make the Paralympics one of the best sporting feats out there (no offense Red Sox fans!) 

As they say: “Amazing Awaits.” Check out the Paralympic video to see for yourself!

Beijing Bound…

It’s official. We leave for Beijing in just over a month! The first three weeks of our trip will be working with the US Paralympics (the elite event for athletes with physical disabilities, which follows the Olympics), followed by 10 days in Japan (… a true vacation? We’ll see!)

Yesterday’s NYT book review featured Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: a Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by BBC Reporter Fuchsia Dunlop. In general, I do love food and I love experimenting with new tastes and flavors. But admittedly, I am not looking forward to the food in China. I’ve definitely added this book to my pre-China-trip list in hopes of changing my bad attitude and embracing my inner omnivore!

I also recently started reading a great blog, called “Behind the Lens at the Beijing Olympics“, which my photographer husband turned me on to. In a recent post, Zach Honig writes:

Chinese Food: Flexibility is Key

I admit — I’m a picky eater. I don’t know why I don’t like onions, but until I came to Beijing, I’d pick them out like I was performing microsurgery. Beijing helped me learn to be flexible — and to just eat the darn onions. A couple friends traveling with me were vegetarians before they came, and they’ve learned to be much more flexible as well. When it comes to dining out in Beijing, there are a couple things to keep in mind…

Thank you Zach and Fuchsia. I – and my tummy – are working on our sense of culinary adventure!