Alana Nichols On Why You Shouldn't Find "Inspiration" In Disabled Athletes

Photo: Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images.
Alana Nichols is, no doubt, an inspiration. The 33-year-old New Mexico native is the first American female to win gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Games in two sports: basketball and alpine skiing. These are just a few of the accolades she's picked up along the way while competing in every games, five total, from 2008 to 2016. As if that weren't enough, Nichols decided to add a third sport — sprint kayaking — to her repertoire on her road to Rio. She makes mastering a new skill look easy, but it's far from that. The three-time Paralympic champion, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since a snowboarding accident in 2000, has had more than her share of challenges. Losing use of her legs isn't the worst of them. And though her talent and perseverance may inspire you, that's not what she's hoping her legacy will be.

Refinery29 caught up with the five-time Paralympian hours after she returned from Rio, where she competed as a rookie in parakayak, to learn more about what drives her, how she overcomes adversity, and why she's not looking to inspire as much as educate — and get nods of respect.

Basketball, skiing, and kayaking couldn't be more different. But are there similarities in the training?
"For me, the repetitive nature of the sport was a huge challenge, mentally and physically. With basketball and alpine skiing, I worked hard in the gym, but I relied on my natural talent and coordination to perform. Going into sprint kayaking, it was a matter of how much time I could get on the water. It was hours and hours of paddling. It took a lot of mental fortitude to stay focused.

"What made it more challenging was that I had an injury in my neck that caused a lot of nerve damage in my arm. I was a ski racer for six years, and with that, I had a number of heavy crashes. In the 2014 Sochi Winter Games two years ago, I had knocked my C6 vertebrae disc out of alignment when I fell on my face and was concussed. Little did I know that sprint kayaking was going to exacerbate that issue.

"A month-and-a-half out from Rio, I was feeling as strong as ever when I woke up with a crick in my neck. It progressed into something that I had never experienced before. I had a shoulder and forearm injury at the same time and numbness in my hand. It was super-frustrating to watch my arms atrophy. All the hard work leading up to Rio had dwindled away. It was pretty heartbreaking for me knowing that I wasn't going to be able to do my best. I won't be sprint kayaking anymore after this. Paddling really puts strain on my neck, so it's not in the cards for me."

That's devastating. But somehow you made it to the final! Was that unexpected given your injuries?
"You know, it was. I had to relinquish control and stop worrying about it, and as a result, I was able to paddle as well as I did. I didn't force it. The morning of the final, when we were on that 5:50 a.m. bus to Copacabana, I felt a sense of peace about it. When I got to the venue, where the water was glassy and the sun was rising, I shed tears because it had been a frustrating experience, and a very enlightening and fortunate one, too. It was possibly my last time competing at a Paralympic level. It hit me all at once, and I was grateful."

Was the pain that you had felt the last two months building up for some time?
"Yes. I had dislocated my shoulder about three years ago in a ski-racing accident that I had on Mount Hood in Oregon. I had skied into a boulder going about 45 miles per hour. It was horrific. I could have died. I broke both of my ankles and dislocated my right shoulder posteriorly. I had to have a full reconstructive surgery, and wear a sling for six weeks. Six months later, I was skiing in Sochi. When I started sprint kayaking [two years ago], I had to push through the pain of my overcompensation in my neck and weakness in my shoulder. After that injury, my shoulder is never going to be the same. It's always going to ache, and I found that kayaking was really painful."

How did you first get into kayaking?
"After Sochi, I went to Hawaii for vacation. While there, I contacted AccesSurf, and they went out of their way to get me on the water. I found myself catching my first wave and realizing that there was no way that I could get back in a basketball gym or continue ski racing knowing how I like to ski (fast!). So once I learned how to surf, I knew I wanted to be on the water. That's when I learned about sprint kayaking in the 2016 Summer Games. I figured, I've done two Paralympic sports, and nobody has ever done three, so I thought I'd give it my best shot."

Was it easy to pick up?

"One of the things about parakayak being a new sport in 2016 [is that] there's not a lot of resources for paddlers, so it was difficult, for sure. I trained at a program called San Diego Canoe Kayak Team with a group of high school kids. Not having a training partner my age or a coach who understood parakayak were a few of the challenges that I had to face."

The media began suggesting that you might make history medaling in three sports in the games. Did you feel the pressure?
"I gotta be honest, I fell victim to that pressure. We're all human and we have these egos. Being a three-time gold medalist, I wanted to finish strong and prove to the world that I could do three sports. As my skills developed, I did realize it wasn't necessarily about the podium, but rather proving to myself that I could get to the games and the final. It was also about following through with something that I said I would do. It's about pushing yourself harder than ever and finding out what you're made of."
Clip courtesy of Ben Duffy
An exclusive clip from the documentary Tin Soldiers
Speaking of the media, there's a lot of inspirational messaging relating to athletes with physical disabilities, which is great, but also begs the question: Is it always appropriate?
"There's a right and a wrong way to portray disabled sport, and the documentary film Tin Soldiers [which came out in August on iTunes] did it the right way. They gave an accurate depiction of what's happening in this day and age amongst athletes with disabilities. That's what I loved so much about [filmmaker] Ben Duffy's vision. He saw this incredible group of people doing the best that they can, and filmed it.

"On the contrary, there are a lot of different media outlets that are milking the inspiration out of everything that we do. There are so many athletes, including myself, who just want some honest, critical analysis of our performance. It's not about, 'Oh, look at what she's overcome and how far she's made it since her injury.' It's about an athlete who's performing at an elite level — what is she doing right, what is she doing wrong, where can she improve? That's really refreshing for us to hear people talk about our performance that way.

"There's this term being used now called 'inspiration porn' that [refers to story lines that] focus on that inspirational piece and cuts out the validity of what we, athletes with disabilities, are doing. It's basically downplaying the hard work that we've done and putting it into a 'It's just great to see you participating' context. That's super-discouraging. The Olympics is about [being] the most elite, and the Paralympics is also about that, and doing the best that you can with the body that you have."

How did you first get involved in Tin Soldiers?
"I want to be validated. There's nothing worse than coming home from the Paralympics and having someone mistake what I've just done with the Special Olympics — or not understand how hard I've worked for this. So when it came to what Ben and [producer] Michael Sassano were doing with Tin Soldiers, I really liked their vision for documenting this experience."

What would you say is the take-home message?
"There's a lot more to people with disabilities than what you see. Strangely enough, my disability is not the worst thing that's ever happened to me. My brother was murdered seven years ago. It's important for people to understand that life doesn't discriminate. We're human and we're doing the best that we can. So treat us with dignity and respect for what we've been through, and don't demean us through some sort of inspirational comment, like how good it is to see us out there."

I'm so sorry to hear about your brother. Did they catch the murderer?
"Yes, they did. He's in prison. My brother was shot and killed just before the Vancouver Games in 2009. We were both living in Denver at the time. It was really, really difficult. He was my number-one fan. After I lost him, I wanted to quit everything, but I knew that he would have wanted me to keep going. I used him as my inspiration in Vancouver. He was so present on a spiritual level. There will be no other games like that for me."

I just realized your Paralympic career spans Obama's presidency and you're about to meet him, along with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, for the third time.
"Yes, this will be my third time meeting him. In 2010, after I had such a successful games, I got a lot of extra-special treatment. I got to visit a school with first lady Michelle Obama in Washington, D.C. and promote her Let's Move! program. So we had some one-on-one time together. When I saw her after the Sochi Games in 2014, she remembered me and I was like, 'Oh my god! What an incredible woman.' She's like America's mom. She gave me a big hug, and I was like, 'Wow!'"

Are you already eyeing a fourth new sport to conquer?

"Once an athlete, always an athlete. I have to continue playing, right? I learned how to surf in Hawaii, so that's now my forever sport. It doesn't matter to me if I compete at a Paralympic level, but I'd like to see it in the games to create more awareness and opportunities to see people access surfing."

So you will not try to compete in surfing at the Paralympics?
"Surfing got into the able-bodied games for Tokyo 2020. If we get surfing into the Paralympics in 2024, I will absolutely be there."

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