When the Paralympics begin in Rio de Janeiro this week, Alana Nichols will attempt to become the first American athlete — Olympic or Paralympic — to win three gold medals in three different sports.
And when we say different, we mean wildly different: In 2008, she won gold in wheelchair basketball. In 2010, she hit the slopes, snagging two golds in downhill and giant slalom skiing.
Now, in 2016, she’s shifting to the water: Nichols is about to compete in sprint kayaking, a brand-new event for the Paralympic games.
Earlier this summer, Nichols, 33, talked with INSIDER about her long and winding route to Paralympic dominance. This is her inspiring story.
Alana was a high school senior when she broke her back in a snowboarding accident.
Nichols grew up in New Mexico and planned to attend college on a softball scholarship. But the accident left her paralysed from the thighs down, upending all the plans she’d put in place for her adult life.
“After I got out of the hospital, that’s when it really started to set in,” she said. “All the ideas I had about college and my life were totally different now that I was in a chair. I was lost as a person. Part of my identity was gone.”
Nichols still graduated from high school and still went on to college at the University of Arizona, where she studied education. But for the first few years after the accident, she didn’t play sports.
Then she discovered wheelchair basketball — and everything changed.
In 2004, Nichols was introduced to wheelchair basketball at her college. Her first foray into the game wasn’t pretty. The ball bounced off one of her wheels and she struggled to retrieve it from the floor. When she lined up to take a shot, the hoop seemed miles away. At first, she couldn’t even hit the rim.
Plus, she had mixed feelings about wheelchair sports in general.
“Moving forward as an athlete with a disability put me further away from who I used to be,” she said. “And I still wanted to be the old version of myself who was walking.”
But watching more experienced wheelchair basketball players ignited her competitive spirit — and spurred her to keep training.
“I was like, ok, some of these people are paralysed higher than me [and they] have figured out how to shoot the ball and put it in the hole. They’re pushing faster than me. And I was just like, I don’t have any excuses. I have to work harder.”
She did — and she got so good that in 2005, she was named to the national women’s wheelchair basketball team. Just three years later, she helped Team USA win gold in Beijing.
A mere month after the Beijing games, she started training in alpine skiing.
When she arrived at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010, Nichols was unstoppable: She took home two golds (in downhill and giant slalom) plus a silver and bronze in two different races.
The victories were all the more meaningful given that Nichols had recently lost her brother.
“One of the things I’m most proud of was returning to skiing after my brother passed away, right before the 2010 games,” she said. “That challenged me more than any gym workout that I’ve wanted to throw up in.”
And Nichols didn’t stop after 2010. Two years later, she returned to play wheelchair basketball in London, though Team USA didn’t medal. She started off the 2014 games in Sochi with a bang, winning silver in downhill skiing. In her next race, the super-G, a crash on the course left her unconscious and she was airlifted to the hospital.
Nichols was shaken, but still not done: A few days later returned to the competition — with a few stitches in her chin — and just barely missed bronze in the her last race, the giant slalom.
Then, on a vacation, she discovered a totally new sport.
After her dramatic experience at Sochi games, Nichols took a vacation to Hawaii. There, on a whim, she took a lesson in adaptive surfing.
“They took me out, I caught my first wave, and there has just been no looking back ever since,” she said. “I basically fell in love.”
At the same time, she caught wind of a new sport being added to the Paralympics: the 200-meter kayak sprint, a race during which competitors paddle kayaks over 200 meters of flat, open water. Since Nichols was already using a kayak paddle in adaptive surfing, the sport seemed like a natural next step.
And just like that, the quest for gold medal number three was on.
In Rio, Nichols will face tough competition for the podium.
So far, she’s raced in a handful of international competitions, but hasn’t won first place yet.
Still, qualifying for the Paralympics in a sport you only started two years ago is one impressive feat. And Nichols spent the months leading up to Rio training twice daily, building strength and refining her paddling technique.
At the very least, she explained, she’s hoping to beat her own personal best.
“Nothing’s keeping me from having my best race,” she said. “That’s really what I’m looking forward to doing down in Rio.”