As part of the Parasports Adventurer Project, which seeks to highlight the capabilities of people with a disability in adventure sport, we are profiling to some of the top athletes in their field. Our Adventurer today is Alana Nichols, multi Paralympic Champion in both Summer and Winter. Alana describes to us why she loves to be an Adventurer, why she loves to try out so many different sports and what keeps her going.
Just a note before you get started. Since we spoke, Adaptive Surfing received official recognition from the International Paralympic Committee, which is a big move in the right direction for surfing to be added to the Paralympic Games. So don’t rule out the possibility of Nichols making a Gold Medal push in 2024 just yet …
You’ve said before that you’re retired from the Paralympics, would you return if Adaptive Surfing became a Paralympic Sport?
“Well I’m not officially retired! But I know that if and when Adaptive Surfing gets into the Paralympic Games, I can’t help myself, I’ll want to compete. If Kelly Slater is still slashing waves at 45 or however old he is I’ll probably have a good shot at it.
Surfing is something I just love, more than anything. I’m hoping to get it into the Paralympic Games for the sole purpose of being able to spread it throughout the world. When sports get on a Paralympic level we get the funding needed and the exposure needed.
It’s something that’s changed my life, mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, I love what it’s done for me and I know it’s a very therapeutic for other people with a disability and I want to share that with the rest of the world.”
The Adaptive Surfing World Championships are coming up at the end of the year in California, will we see you there and what do you hope the event can achieve?
“Yeah absolutely, we have a Women’s division for the first time this year. It’s only the third World Championships in Adaptive Surfing so we’re very much in the infancy of the sport.
Now that we have a Women’s Division, it’s my personal mission to use that to raise the profile of the sport and to get more Wave Skis - the piece of equipment I surf on – out to as many people as possible.
The issue is at the moment is that Wave Ski as a division within Adaptive Surfing is very U.S centred, because we have the equipment. Outside of the US we there are some great male Wave Skiers but the problem is we don’t have any females. Basically I need to get a strong, willing, stoked female and get her the equipment because you need a number of countries to compete.“
Do you miss the day-to-day pressure of training towards a Paralympic Games?
“After 2014 (Winter Paralympics in Sochi) I needed some space, a lot of athletes deal with burnout but I had some pretty significant injuries. The track in Sochi was treacherous. Myself and a couple of teammates ended up in the hospital. I just needed to create some space for myself to see what my relationship with ski-racing was, and also to have a bit of time to miss it, which really helped.
I’m right on the cusp of retirement for sure. A lot of my Paralympic career so far has been associated with inspiring others, sacrificing my true desires to put myself in a position to help other people with injuries know what they can do.
Since Sochi I’ve been able to compete and train for myself for the first time and that has been great, I’ve been able to experience the sport as an athlete first without the added pressures which come with an international event like the Paralympics.”
How challenging is it maintain motivation away from the spotlight of the Paralympics every four (or in your case) 2 years?
“You have to check in with your ‘why?’. I had a very strong ‘why?’ going into 2010, in 2014 there was a lot of things that didn’t flow for me, I had a couple of injuries even going into the Games, but my ‘why?' wasn’t in line with what it should have been.
You have to sacrifices for your family, your country, yourself but if you’re not balanced with really loving what you’re doing, dedicating your time and energy with your best interests in mind, I don’t think you have the right energy going into the Games.”
What does your routine look like now? Are you still training hard, or have you given yourself a bit of a break?
“I cross train a lot with surfing, but training in the gym and lifting is a totally different story when you’re building towards something so I haven’t been weight training. I’ve been in the best shape with my core since I started sprint kayak and the rotation that’s involved there has made me a way stronger skier and I can really hold the angles I need when I’m at the apex of my ski turn.
I didn’t plan for that to happen, I never knew that it would be such a positive by-product of my sprint kayak career but it’s been amazing. Everything with mono-skiing has, from our waist up is the same but we’re essentially using our obliques and our core as our knees, hips and ankles and that’s what creating those angles in the turn. So getting the core strong and flexible and being able to rotate is really important and sprint kayaking really set me up for that.“
You have a Summer Paralympic Gold Medal in Wheelchair Basketball, 2 Winter Paralympic Gold Medals in Sit-Skiing, you got to the Rio 2016 Final in Sprint Kayaking and now you’re Surfing. Most people would be happy with one gold medal in one sport! What is it about you that makes you push yourself to master new sports?
“I don’t want to say it’s about the struggle but it is about the reach and the process of figuring out if you can actually do it. If I knew that I could do any of these things it wouldn’t be intriguing or challenging for me. But turning around in 2 years and trying to become an endurance athlete (referring to Sprint Kayak) which I’ve never really been postured towards presented a huge challenge, I didn’t know if I could do it.
It’s that uncertainty that drives me every day to see if I can. I’m inspired when people do things that they aren’t sure if they can do, even if it’s just an average person trying to rock climb for the first time, that’s inspiring to me. So for me it’s about the reach, it’s the figuring it out.
One of the most challenging things for me with Sprint Kayaking was the seating setup, putting a paraplegic into a boat and becoming the most effective paddler. I got super frustrated with that, it wasn’t all fun and games, but figuring it out and being resourceful was the fun part for me.”
You’ve picked up four different sports in a very short period of time and been very successful with them, do you have a process for breaking down and approaching the skills you need to learn or is it based on lots of trial and error?
“It’s a little bit of both. The learning process is really what I love to do and I think about it all day every day. When I was Sprint Kayaking and trying to understand the kinetic motion that takes place, its not like a lot of people think, that it’s all bicep, its actually your lat and your rotational strength. The timing of the catch is a lot like golf, where you’re progressively building momentum. Just learning that every day, getting in the water, being cerebral about it but then also letting your body figure it out.
I wouldn’t say I have a process as much as I have a mindset. You know, if you surround yourself with greatness you’ll rise to the occasion. When I first start ski-racing I found one of my teammates Tyler Walker, fastest skier on the hill, and I was just like, can I follow you? You know let me watch what you’re doing. I’m a very visual learner so it might be different for others who are more cerebral about it but that’s what worked for me.”
When you’re at the start line you look serene, but I guess that’s not the case?! What are your coping mechanisms to focus on the race ahead?
“I think Paralympians are masters of being comfortable with being extremely uncomfortable. You put on a facade, the butterflies are flapping their wings but you have to make them fly in formation. Very often, especially at the start gate for downhill I am 100% freaking out, but me acknowledging that that’s exactly how I should be feeling in that moment is what brings some structure to what feels like chaos.
The practice of being nervous is something you build just like with any of your muscles through training. Through competition you become familiar with pressure and nerves so you don’t have some sort of freak out moment, because you can think to yourself, this is exactly where I should be. You’ll get the feeling of, I want to throw-up, I’m going to throw-up, but it’s OK once you understand that it’s actually how you should be feeling!
Visualisation is a big part of preparation for me. When I visualise myself at the start gate I also visualise that jittery, crazy feeling and acknowledge that it will be there. If I wasn’t nervous before a ski race I would think something was wrong, like I didn’t care enough. I know I need to be in this really uncomfortable space in order to perform and I think the more familiar athletes become with that the better their performance can be.”
When you look back on your career are you able to pick out a favourite moment from the many great achievements?
“It’s hard to do, those moments when you win are always going to be up there amongst your favourite moments, but the Paralympics are such a special experience. You just realise that this is never going to happen in the same way again, and being in each moment is a bit like ‘wow’ I get to be a part of this.
One of my favourite moments, which is just so vivid for me is after I won the Gold in Vancouver for the Giant Slalom. I remember that it has rained all day that day, the weather was terrible.
The win itself was inspired by my brother who had recently passed away so it was a very powerful experience but one of my favourite moments was when I was on the podium, the national anthem was playing and I see all of my teammates in the front row, my coaches and they are just getting soaked by the rain, I mean they’re getting dumped on!
But they were so happy for me, they were so genuinely joyful for the experience that I was having, I looked down at them and they were in tears, just sharing that moment with me, so it was very powerful.”
Finally, what would your advice be to somebody with a disability who wants to get into sport, either through para-sport or through mainstream sport?
For a lot of people with disabilities the most available option is to access an able-bodied programme and my advice would be to be creative and be innovative with how you work your way in there and to help people to include you.
I think a lot of people with disabilities have this mindset of, if it’s not a programme that’s made for me then I don’t belong, but more often than not the coaches and the staff that are involved in physical education programmes or extra-curricular sports they just need to collaborate with you.
They need to know exactly what you need and you need to communicate that. There are solutions, maybe it’s not playing a full game of Wheelchair Basketball, but everyone can play a game of knockout, no matter if they’re standing up or sitting down. So it’s about being creative and innovative with how you integrate yourself.
I’ve worked closely with the Challenged Athlete Foundation and their sole purpose is to create opportunities for people with disabilities to get the equipment that they need. Adaptive equipment is so expensive and often the first barrier that a person with a disability faces in being able to participate is having the equipment to do so. But there are organisations out there, the Challenged Athlete Foundation bought my first Basketball chair, my first Mono-Ski and now my first Surfboard.
My biggest piece of advice is let your needs be known, people want to help and more often than not they will go out of their way to do so.”
Interview by Ben O'Rourke for Parasports World
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