14 Years After A Fall, Paralympian Carries Historic Gold Into Sochi

Alpine skier Alana Nichols is the first female American athlete to win gold medals in both Summer and Winter Games. Nichols, who also plays wheelchair basketball, has been paralyzed since 2000.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

While Russia's military moves in Ukraine are the focus of intense diplomacy this week, Russia's also hosting a big international gathering. The Paralympic Games, for disabled athletes, officially open on Friday in Sochi. And the next morning, Alan Nichols will take to the slopes in women's downhill, the sitting category. When Nichols was 17, she broke her back in a snowboarding accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Nichols is 30 now and she already has five Paralympic medals to her name, including three gold medals. In fact, she's the first American woman athlete to win gold in both the summer and winter games. She's also a medalist in wheelchair basketball. But right now, it's skiing on her mind and Alana Nichols joins me from Sochi to talk about that. Welcome to the program.

ALANA NICHOLS: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

BLOCK: And Alana, for people who haven't seen it, why don't you describe how you compete. You're using something called a sit ski.

NICHOLS: Yes, exactly. Well, basically, it's a machine that I sit in. I have smaller forearm crutches on my arms that are called outriggers and they have little ski tips at the ends for - those used for balance. And the entire machine itself is connected to a single ski, which is a normal race ski, by a motorcycle shock. So basically, we are suspended and the shock compresses and rebounds relative to the terrain and the snow.

BLOCK: How hard or easy was it for you to figure out the balance and to get really good at skiing using a sit ski?

NICHOLS: You know, it was a lot like learning how to snowboard for the first time, just falling and getting back up, unfortunately. A lot of the same concepts apply in terms of edging and riding on a flat ski. So I had a pretty good foundation.

BLOCK: Take me back, Alana, to that accident back in 2000 that left you paralyzed. What happened?

NICHOLS: I was outback country skiing with a group of my friends in high school and I had been thinking about and planning on doing my first back-flip that season and had been practicing on my snowboard on a trampoline. And being so early in the season, there wasn't a ton of snow coverage. And being 17, we didn't really probe for rocks so it was kind of a perfect storm.

I attempted my first back-flip, over-rotated the back-flip, did a one and a half and ended up landing on my back on a rock and shattered my spine in three places.

BLOCK: After the accident, when you started thinking about the future, did you figure, that's it? I mean, my skiing life is over.

NICHOLS: Absolutely. Like most other 17-year-olds, I was going to conquer the world at that age and for two years after my accident, I acted like there was no life beyond the wheelchair until I found out about wheelchair basketball. And that's when things really started to change for me.

BLOCK: What's it like to be there, for you, among top athletes from all over the world?

NICHOLS: You know, it's really incredible and almost every morning, I give thanks just to be a part of this movement. We are getting live TV coverage for the first time in history and I do feel like I get to be a part of this huge historical moment in the Paralympic movement.

BLOCK: First time in history, it's interesting. I mean, does that say to you that the Paralympics have reached a point of recognition that they didn't have before?

NICHOLS: Absolutely. You know, I think that a lot of people are really into the athlete's stories when it comes to the Olympics and that's really what spectators like to learn about and follow athletes for that reason. And I think, from a biased opinion, Paralympians have the best stories. There's not one person here that hasn't had to overcome an incredible life situation to compete at the highest level and become an elite athlete.

BLOCK: Alana, you know that the U.S. has cancelled sending its official delegation to the Paralympics because of the crisis next door in Ukraine. It strikes me that it must be a strange time to be in Sochi, given what's going on.

NICHOLS: It is a strange time, and unfortunately my family and friends are pretty nervous about coming over. But I know that we're safe here and that we have half of Russia's army looking after us and the U.S. security is on point. So we are just going to move forward as athletes and do our job and just, you know, hoping that things calm down and they resolve the issues.

BLOCK: That's Alana Nichols. She'll be representing Team USA in Alpine skiing at the Sochi Paralympic Games. Alana, best of luck. Thanks for talking with us.

NICHOLS: Thank you so much.

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