A UA alum's unexpected path to Olympic, Paralympic gold
After landing back-first on a rock while attempting a backflip on her snowboard in the early 2000s, Alana Nichols said she thought she would never be able to be an athlete again.
The fall left her paralyzed from the waist down, just as she was being recruited by colleges to play softball.
“Being an athlete all my life, I was naturally at a loss after I broke my back and became paralyzed,” Nichols said. “I went on to the University of New Mexico after that, and really never had any plans to be an athlete again.”
One day when she was cruising through the gym at the University of New Mexico, she saw a team of wheelchair basketball players playing against each other. A few months later, she ran into a woman who had played for the U.S. Paralympics wheelchair basketball team and told her about the UA’s program.
ua alumna Alana Nichols celebrates after winning a silver medal in women’s downhill sitting at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Nichols is the first American woman to ever earn a gold medal in a summer and winter Olympics or Paralympics.
“It was pretty amazing to hear that they have an all women’s team at the University of Arizona,” Nichols said, “and that I could go there and play and be on a partial scholarship and pursue my dream of being a collegiate athlete.”
Nichols soon began competing for Arizona on the wheelchair basketball team. It wasn’t long before she was recruited by Team USA and won a gold medal in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.
“Going to the Beijing games for my first [Olympic] Games was something out of this world,” Nichols said. “It was amazing to be in China, but also to compete for a gold medal. Going into the season undefeated and to be able to leave with a gold medal around our necks was a pretty powerful experience.”
From there, Nichols has become one of the most respected Paralympic athletes of this generation. She has competed in four Paralympic Games and is a two-sport phenomenon in alpine skiing and wheelchair basketball. She is also the first female American athlete to win gold medals in both the summer and winter Olympic or Paralympic Games.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to have that title, and I think part of that has to do with being really lucky; it was just timing,” Nichols said. “There was absolutely a woman that was going to do that first, and I just happened to be that first person.”
Most recently, Nichols competed in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games, where she earned a silver medal in Women’s Downhill – Sitting. Unfortunately, the rest of her Sochi experience was not as lucky, as she took a hard fall in the sitting Super-G, but she confirmed that she has since recovered.
Nichols graduated from the UA in 2006 with a degree in special education rehabilitation and school psychology. Now 31 years of age, she credits the university and her coaches for her success.
“Just looking back at the year that it took to get there and the person that I was right after I broke my back, it’s pretty amazing to be able to see how far I have come and how many people that have made it possible for me to be a part of that sport,” Nichols said. “The University of Arizona’s program laid the foundation for me being the athlete that I am today.”
—Follow Matt Wall @mwall20