Alana Nichols aims to make Paralympic history, once again
If Alana Nichols wins gold at the Paralympic Games in Rio, she will be the first female U.S. athlete -- Paralympic or Olympic -- to do so in three different sports. Not that she's feeling the pressure. Well, maybe a little.
"That's what it's about at the end of the day, is winning a medal," she says. "There's no way around it. So, yeah, of course I'm feeling that pressure. I also have a pretty substantial track record that people are expecting me to medal."
Substantial might be an understatement. Nichols, 33, has already earned three gold medals -- one in wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Beijing Games and two in alpine skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Games -- making her the first female U.S. Paralympian to win in both summer and winter sports. She also earned a bronze and a silver in Vancouver. In 2014, despite a scary crash during the women's super-G sitting event, Nichols came home with a silver medal in downhill. (In London in 2012, Nichols just missed the podium with a fourth-place finish with the U.S. wheelchair basketball team.)
The Rio Paralympics open on Wednesday, and in Nichols' fifth Games she will hit the water as one of two members of the USA's inaugural paracanoe team. It's the first year that 200-meter sprint kayaking has been held in the Paralympics, and the races, across flat water, begin a week after the Games begin on Wednesday, September 14.
"This has been the biggest challenge for me as an athlete. I was part of two very skill-oriented sports. With sprint kayak, it's just been about how well I can condition my body," she says.
In the lead-up to Rio, Nichols adhered to an intense training schedule both in and out of the water. Most days, she was in the San Diego Bay (her home base since last year) from 6 to 8 a.m., practicing sprints of several hundred meters, and then back in again for an afternoon/evening session.
On land, she focused primarily on strengthening her core and lats to allow for the explosive work required of a race that will likely last just under a minute. Exercises like angled lat pull-downs, using an 8-pound balancing ball for rotational work, have become a regular part of her gym routine.
Nichols works remotely with trainer Michele Eray, a former Olympic canoer from South Africa. Eray, who also trains U.S. sprint canoer Maggie Hogan, says monitoring Nichols' heart rate has become crucial for improving her aerobic power and endurance.
Eray uses Motionize, a device with two sensors -- one on Nichols' kayak and one on her paddle -- to track things such as the length and distance of her stroke, strokes per minute and strokes per session. The information syncs up to an app on Nichols' phone, which then can be forwarded to Eray to better design training sessions.
"[Alana] knows what she needs to do to get the most out of herself. The challenge [is] that she is pretty new to a sport that is highly technical. It usually takes about seven to 10 years to fully develop a medal-potential canoe sprinter, and she has been in the game for 1.5 years," Eray says.
Nichols also incorporates CrossFit workouts once or twice a week at local gym at Alpine Ranch CrossFit, with a coach who is also an adaptive athlete. And she cross-trains at least once a week by surfing, a sport that has been her passion since 2014.
"I say it keeps me sane because sprint kayaking is such a focus endurance sport, that when I go surf, I get to purely have fun. It's like a revitalization," she says.
Even in a new sport, everything feels very familiar to the veteran Paralympian -- down to the last-minute prerace jitters.
"If you're not nervous, if you don't feel like you wanna throw up, then something's wrong. But it's about being comfortable with those feelings. I had a friend tell me the other day, 'It's about making those butterflies fly in formation,'" she laughs.
In Rio, Nichols will compete under a KL2 classification, which will pit her against athletes with partial leg or trunk function (e.g. single-leg amputees). Nichols, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowboarding accident in 2000, feels this may put her at a disadvantage, but is determined not to worry about it.
"There's nothing to keep me from having my best 200-meter race at Rio, and that's what I'm going to do. The podium will shake out how it will. Medaling is just the cherry on top," she says.
She's said all along that Rio will be her last Paralympic Games -- until the recent announcement that surfing will be an official Olympic sport in 2020. The Paralympic Games may follow suit in 2024, and if that's the case, Nichols' may aim for one more Games.
"If 2024 includes surfing, I would love to compete," she says.
But, first things first -- she has another chance to make history next week in Rio.