How A Terrifying Crash Turned Alana Nichols Into A Really Good Surfer
Alana Nichols is no stranger to Mount Hood. The mountain and potentially active volcano stands at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet in northern Oregon, and by June 2013, Nichols had already practiced on it for about six years. The grooves of the terrain, the steepness of the slope and the texture of the snow were all familiar to the three-time Paralympic gold medalist.
But as she slid down on the first day of practice runs, the right edge of her ski got caught on the heavy, wet snow. Unable to shimmy off in time, Nichols slammed into a boulder. Her body bounced off the rock, and she broke both of her ankles and dislocated her right shoulder during the tumble.
"I was down to one working limb at that point," the 32-year-old recalls.
The damage was extensive. Her shoulder had separated from her body, tearing almost every muscle along the way. Worst of all, the fall was a terrifying flashback to the accident she'd had at 17, when, while attempting a snowboarding trick, she over-rotated, landed with her back on a rock and was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Nichols rehabbed both her mind and her body as quickly as possible and made it back to the sport in time for the 2014 Paralympic Games. But in Sochi, she had another bad scare, landing face-first during the women's super-G sitting event. The last image her family would see on the televised live feed -- which was abruptly cut -- was of Nichols lying unconscious on the snowy Russian slope. Though she ultimately returned to competition for the end of the Games, it was the final straw.
"I realized that [my siblings] went through my spinal cord injury with me and that was very traumatic for them," she says. "I just realized that after Sochi, I didn't need to take those risks anymore."
At that point, she was done with skiing. It was time for something new.
Every surfer remembers her first wave, that rush of being propelled forward by a combination of nature's graceful momentum and the ocean's internal rhythm -- its pulse. It's what surfers refer to as "the stoke" and exactly what Nichols would experience a few months after Sochi when she surfed for the first time at Queen's break on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. She was instantly hooked.
"I was just really in a place physically where I just needed to heal, so that's kind of what surfing did for me," she says. "I found the water to be much more forgiving when you land on your face."
Nichols entered and won her first adaptive surfing contest at Duke's OceanFest shortly thereafter, only the second time she had surfed. Then she placed fifth at the Oceanside Longboard Club's annual contest in August, where she was the only female surfer in her category.
This weekend, she's setting her sights on winning a medal as a member of the U.S. team at the first-ever International Surfing Association (ISA) World Adaptive Surfing Championship in La Jolla, California. An estimated 70 adaptive surfers from 18 countries will compete in four categories: stand (surfers who ride waves standing upright), upright (surfers who ride waves in a seated or kneeling position), prone (surfers who ride waves lying down) and assist (surfers who receive support getting into a wave but must ride it independently). Nichols will compete in the upright division.
"I can't duck-dive [under] a wave, so I sit on top of a surfboard and use a kayak paddle to get through the impact zone," she says. Nichols rides an 8-foot, 6-inch "waveski," a cross between a stand-up paddleboard and a kayak, in which she is strapped in.
She also hasn't given up on winning more Paralympic gold and is currently training to compete in sprint kayaking when the sport makes its debut at the Rio Games in 2016.
To cross-train for both sports, she works with her trainer, Chris Daly, who combines strength training, cardio and rehabilitation for her shoulder, including trigger point therapy and sled-pulling with her wheelchair for conditioning.
"I have found that some days, Alana requires more recovery and therapy, and other days she requires an extreme butt-kicking. Luckily, Alana is always up for the latter," Daly says. As far as diet goes, she's going "lean and clean," avoiding empty carbs and loading up on fresh vegetables and lean proteins. Fish tacos are a favorite ("They're low-carb and gluten-free") and not hard to find in San Diego, where Nichols moved to two months ago to train.
She sees the ISA event as a springboard for a larger movement to bring awareness of challenged athletes around the world. ISA president Fernando Aguerre echoes the sentiment. "The amount of facilities and resources that we have in the U.S. for adaptive athletes in particular [and] for people with disabilities in general is uncommon. My hope is that for the vast majority of the people in the world that have physical limitations, I want to inspire them and let them know you can go to the ocean. You can do a lot of these things," he says.
It's a message that also resonates with Carissa Moore, a two-time women's surfing world champion and current top-ranked surfer on the Women's Championship Tour. Moore and Nichols met at a photo shoot for Nike last year, just as Nichols was learning to surf. The two immediately bonded.
"When I met Alana, I heard about her getting into her snowboarding accident. I'd like to think inside all of us, there's that athlete and that competitive drive that would be like, 'Hey, I'm gonna pick myself back up and do something else,'" Moore says. "But just to see how Alana has done it with such a positive attitude and how she's embraced everything, it's truly awesome."
And there's no doubt that Nichols has already fully embraced her newest sport, complete with lofty goals. "I do want to challenge myself to surf some of the best waves in the world. If there was an opportunity for me to promote adaptive surfing on the circuit with the able-bodied athletes as a representative, I would love to be able to find myself in South Africa at all the big spots."
Like many surfers, she also dreams of experiencing that moment of ultimate stoke: "The day I get barreled is gonna be my best day ever." (See photo for an example of "getting barreled")
For an athlete who has already medaled six times in land-based sports (five in skiing events and once in wheelchair basketball), the transition into the water has been relatively seamless. She says she doesn't missing skiing as much as she thought she would and was perfectly content doing it for fun instead of competition last season.
If she makes it to Rio, though, it will likely be her last Paralympic Games so she can make room for other things in her life, like starting a family and being a more active ambassador for adaptive 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 says. "I know there's another female, God forbid, that's gonna break her back. She's gonna be lost without her sport. She's gonna need to have that hope and really find herself as an athlete again."
Retirement after Rio is the plan, but that could change if surfing makes it to the Games in the near future. Indeed, had it made it on the roster for 2016, the choice between sprint kayaking and surfing would have been easy.
"Surfing, hands down," she says, breathlessly and without hesitation. "Absolutely. That would be the only way I'd go back for one more."
Watch Alana Nichols surf in the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship starting on Friday, Sept. 25, here.