By Theresa Gonzalez
Some have called her superhuman. Others have called her a superhero. Team Visa athlete Alana Nichols, 33, holds many titles. She is the first female American athlete in history to win gold medals in both the summer (for wheelchair basketball) and winter (alpine skiing) Paralympic Games. She’s equally comfortable in the water, on the slopes and on the court and she is an inspiration to many around the world.
Growing up in New Mexico and spending time in Colorado, Nichols was an avid snowboarder—her first love in sports—until she suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury in 2000 at the age of 17. Attempting to do a back flip on her snowboard, she over-rotated and landed back-first on a boulder, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
Para sports were her lifeline, bringing her back into shape mentally and physically. First, while studying at the University of New Mexico, she became inspired by the women’s wheelchair basketball team—the way they pushed beyond what others might consider limits. Her desire to compete was intense and with wheelchair basketball she had found her sport. After excelling at the game, she received a scholarship to play for the University of Arizona, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in special education rehab and school psychology. In 2004, Nichols qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team and competed in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. Her team won gold.
Following her success in Beijing, Nichols moved to Colorado and picked up Para alpine skiing using a mono-ski. By 2010, she’d defeated the defending Paralympic gold medalist at the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup and later won four Paralympic medals (two gold, one silver and one bronze) at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, where she was the most decorated U.S. female athlete. At the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, Nichols added another medal, silver in downhill skiing.
After graduating from the University of Arizona, Nichols earned a master’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Alabama. She now lives in San Diego, where she has turned her attention to adaptive surfing and sprint canoe, which makes its debut at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. After competing in sprint canoe in Rio, Nichols plans to retire from competition to focus on starting a family and acting as an ambassador for people with disabilities interested in sports.
"Being paralyzed is a really difficult life to live, so if there is any way that I can bring joy into somebody's life through sport, that's my purpose," she told ESPN. "I know there's another female, God forbid, that's gonna break her back. She's going to be lost without her sport. She's going to need to have that hope and really find herself as an athlete again." In 2014, Nichols was inducted into the Superman Hall of Heroes, which honors people who make a difference in the lives of others each day.
Team Visa athletes are a group of world-class Olympic and Paralympic athletes who embody Visa’s values of acceptance, partnership and innovation, including fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American woman to compete in a hijab at the Olympic Games and Raheleh Asemani, the first refugee athlete ever to qualify for the Olympic sport of taekwondo. Through the program, Visa has supported more than 1,000 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls by providing them with financial and marketing support in the run up to and during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Nichols has been a member of Team Visa since 2011 and with every hoop shot, downhill dive and paddle stroke the three-time gold medalist has made Visa proud. Look forward to watching her compete at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games from September 7 through 18.
Theresa Gonzalez is the author of two Chronicle Books titles and a senior writer for Visa. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @theresagonzalez.
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