Getting back up to speed

As she recovers from a shoulder injury, Alana Nichols works on her vision point for the Sochi Paralympics in March. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

In Alpine skiing, one of the worst habits you can have is to look at the snow right in front of you. I know that sounds crazy -- of course you want to see what’s there -- but you should actually be looking down the hill, three, four, or even five gates ahead so you can plan accordingly. If you ski gate to gate, you’re inevitably going to make mistakes, because you don’t have enough time to adapt to the terrain. It’s absolutely something that makes or breaks a ski race.

So my vision point is one of the biggest things I’m working on as I recover from a shoulder injury and prepare for the Sochi Paralympics in March. I have a subconscious fear of hitting a rut, which I guess is not all that surprising -- we are going very, very fast and I’ve had more than one injury from crashes.

The NorAm (North American) race series has been going on at Copper Mountain, Colo., all week. Despite the name, athletes from Japan, Australia, Russia and many other countries are here, too. But I actually didn’t race and opted to be a forerunner, one of the people sent down beforehand to make sure the track is in good shape and everything is up to par for the races. So basically I skied the same race as everybody. It just didn’t count.

Races aren’t necessarily crucial for me right now. I don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on myself as I come back from this injury, so I’m taking smaller steps now to be sure I’m in a good position when it matters. I’m just trying to take it slow and do it right.

It felt great to get out there, though. I was nervous, but I was ski-racer nervous, not scared of crashing or getting injured. I was happy and I felt really confident that I knew what I was doing. Obviously it wasn’t a high-stakes situation, but it’s all coming back really fast, and of course it’s fun to see progress happen quickly.

I’ve been skiing pretty hard outside of the gates over the past week, too, free skiing both on groomed and not-groomed runs. Free skiing is one of the most beneficial things you can do as a ski racer because it forces you to react in different ways than you normally do. The terrain changes and it’s broken up -- not all pristine like at a race. Free skiing keeps you vigilant.

I really challenge myself to ski faster and continue to progress outside the gates so that when I get back to racing I’ll be faster. Five days of skiing is a lot of work for me, though, because as a sit skier, I use my arms for balance. They are feeling pretty tired right now!

On training days we’re on the lift by 9 a.m., and we’ll ski anywhere from five to 10 runs before lunch. Then we take a break to eat and do a video session where we can watch and analyze what we were doing all morning. I’m usually looking at where my eyes were and what my vision looks like, along with other technique elements, like if my shoulders are level.

Then it’s back out for another five or 10 runs -- depending on whether you’re looking for quality or quantity. Right now I’m after quantity; I just need to get miles in. After we get done on the hill around 3 p.m., we do what we call “recovery” in the gym. For me that’s 30 minutes on an arm bike or swimming and a really good stretch.

Needless to say, it’ll be great to take a little break and head home to New Mexico for Christmas with my family. I’m super blessed to be sponsored by BMW, who just gave me a 2014 X5, so I’ll be driving that from Denver to Farmington, N.M., where I’m from. I didn’t bring it up into the mountains because I didn’t want to get it all dirty, so I am beyond excited to drive it!

Most of all I can’t wait to see my sisters and my grandma. We just have a blast together. We celebrate on Christmas Eve every year: We go to church, come home, have hors d’oeuvres and just tear all the presents open. Being around my family is one of my favorite things.

It won’t be much time off, though, because my first real race will be Jan. 1. I also just got some exciting news: I’m going to be on Conan O’Brien on Jan. 21! I can’t wait. It’s a difficult balance trying to take advantage of media opportunities while also staying focused on racing, but it’s a lot of fun, too. Directly after I do Conan, I’m going to be getting on a plane for a race in Tignes, France. It’ll be crazy busy, but I’m pumped. Bring on 2014!