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Gold medalist Alana Nichols makes 'something beautiful' out of paralysis

by Susan Donaldson James / / Source: TODAY Contributor

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Alana Nichols always imagined she’d be an Olympic softball player, but those dreams were dashed at 17 when she was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident.

“I remember lying in my hospital bed like a prisoner in my own body … thinking of what my life would become,” said Nichols. “I had wanted to travel, be a mom and wife and walk down the aisle.”

“It seemed like the end of the world and I didn’t have any hope for the future,” she told TODAY.

Alana Nichols is one of the top Paralympic athletes in the world
Alana Nichols, one of the top Paralympic athletes in the world, is featured in a new documentary on adaptive sports, "Tin Soldiers."Photo by Mike Sassano

But today at 33, Nichols is one of the top Paralympic athletes in the world. She will compete for the U.S. team in sprint kayaking in Rio, hoping to be the only American woman — Olympic or Paralympic — to win gold in three different sports.

Related: Full coverage of the 2016 Games in Rio

Alana Nichols
Alana Nichols will compete for the U.S. Paralympic sprint kayaking team.Photo by Rich Cruse

Nichols has already won gold in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing, and is the first American woman to win gold in both the summer and winter games.

She is part of a movement that began in 1960 in Rome as 400 disabled athletes from 23 countries participated in the first Paralympics. Today, the event is held two weeks after the Games in all the same venues where able-bodied athletes compete.

Her story is also featured in a new documentary, “Tin Soldiers,” about the world of adaptive sports by filmmaker Ben Duffy. It rolls out on iTunes and other video platforms on Aug. 16.

Related: Rio 2016 Olympic hopefuls tell us why they are 'strong'

Nichols has achieved success despite unimaginable tragedy: Her father was killed in a car crash when she was 9 months old; unable to cope, her mother gave up her two daughters; as a teen, she was paralyzed; then, while training for the 2010 Paralympics, her brother was murdered.

Alana Nichols with her brother.
Nichols nearly lost her will to live when her older brother was murdered in 2009 at the age of 29. They are shown here as children.Courtesy Alana Nichols

“I didn’t want to live anymore,” said Nichols.

But through adaptive sports, Nichols found a way to live fully.

Her paralysis begins about mid-thigh, so long leg braces have allowed her to walk. Her hip abductors are still strong enough to squeeze her thighs and swivel her torso.

Related: Woman who is paralyzed hikes Appalachian Trail — alone

Paralympic gold medalists Alana Nichols and Patty Cisneros Prevo
Paralympic gold medalists Alana Nichols and Patty Cisneros Prevo at the 2011 Women's Wheelchair Basketball Championships.Photo by Kellie Coughlin

“Alana has all those life skills, determination and perseverance built into her DNA already,” said her best friend and fellow wheelchair basketball gold medalist Patty Cisneros Prevo of Denver. “It’s who she is.”

“She is so energetic and positive, but super humble,” added Prevo, 38, who was paralyzed in a 1996 car accident. “She’s one of those people who makes you feel better about yourself. And she is fearless.”

Related: This woman won't let paralysis stop her from extreme sports, beauty pageants

Alana Nichols and Patty Cisneros Prevo
Nichols officiated at the wedding of her 2008 teammate and best friend Patty Cisneros Prevo.Photo by Kellie Coughlin

Nichols’ personal journey began in New Mexico, where her grandparents formally adopted her at age 5 and introduced her to sports.

“It was a turning point for me,” she said. “I played t-ball, then basketball and then snowboarding. Toward the end of high school, I focused on softball, and I dreamed of playing in the Games.”

Paralympian Alana Nichols
Nichols played on the Farmington, New Mexico, high school basketball team as a teenager.Courtesy Alana Nichols

A risk-taker who “loved to go fast,” Nichols said she gained “new confidence” on the snowboard and yearned to do a back flip. But in November 2000, while out in the back country, she said she “impulsively” tried it out and failed.

“I gained speed, threw my feet over my head and taco-landed on a four-foot boulder under the snow,” she said. “I broke my back in three places and was paralyzed.”

At first, Nichols said she was in denial; then when reality set in, she was “broken.”

“I couldn't really imagine what paralysis meant even as my doctor described how nerves don’t regenerate,” she said. “I thought I would walk in a few weeks.”

“I couldn’t sit up or move or feel my legs and, in rehab, things got heavy,” she said. “All my friends who’d visited me in the hospital weren’t coming around anymore. It started to get real for me. I felt so alone.”

Related: Rodeo champion Amberley Snyder back in the saddle after paralysis

Alana Nichols
The U.S. women's wheelchair basketball team won gold in Beijing in 2008. It was Nichols' first of three gold medals.Photo by Felix Chen

Nichols went on to the University of New Mexico, where only two years later, her “God moment” came in the gym, when she discovered wheelchair basketball.

“I didn’t think adaptive sports would challenge me or be nearly as exciting,” she said. “What grabbed my attention was how violent it is. These chairs were making huge contact and guys were falling over and getting back up.”

“I felt athletic again — the wheels could slant and turn,” she said. “I felt agile again. I could move like I wanted to. I saw others in wheelchairs and knew that I didn’t have any excuse.”

In 2008, Nichols played on the U.S. wheelchair team in Beijing, taking gold. In the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, she won two golds on a mono-ski, one in downhill and another in slalom.

Paralympian Alana Nichols
Nichols won two golds on her mono ski in Vancouver in 2010, skiing on the same slopes as Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn.Photo by Joe Kusumoto

Today, she inspires others through speaking engagements and serves on the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“I have a certain responsibility to speak to that young girl who, God forbid, has a spinal cord injury,” she said. “She needs to see someone like me who follows her dream and passions, getting an education and getting on the red carpet in heels.”

Nichols has a steady boyfriend and said she one day would be “honored to be a mother.”

She has forgiven her mother, whom she describes as a “beautiful person.” Nichols remains close to her sister and 86-year-old grandmother, her biggest fan.

“When life throws a curveball — and it doesn’t have to be a disability — you have to keep going,” said Nichols. “Create something new and beautiful out of it.”

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