Paralympian Alana Nichols on turning doubt into motivation and inspiring others

Multisport athlete Alana Nichols, a 2021 espnW Women + Sports Summit panelist, was the first American woman to win gold in the Summer (2008) and Winter (2010) Paralympic Games. Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images

Alana Nichols, a three-time Team USA Paralympic gold medalist, sustained a spinal cord injury in a snowboarding accident when she was 17 years old. But Nichols was never one to quit. Because of her lifelong love for sports, Nichols, a native of New Mexico, continued to excel in wheelchair basketball and Alpine skiing to become the first American woman to win gold in the Summer (2008) and Winter (2010) Paralympic Games.

At 38 years old, the Team Toyota athlete is now focused on motherhood, adaptive surfing, and inspiring others to dream big and live life to the fullest.

Being 17 years old is such an interesting time. Everybody's on the cusp of their next thing in life. You're about to graduate high school. You're going off to college. In your mind, you have all these amazing, big dreams of what it could be and probably very naive thoughts about it.

I was 17 years old, waking up in the ICU and newly paralyzed.

I'll never forget the day the doctor came in to talk with me about my spinal cord injury. He explained that the spinal cord is the only organ in your body that doesn't regenerate. Brain tissue, lung tissue, even peripheral nerves can regenerate, but not the spinal cord. After medically breaking down the information about my new injury, he said, "You probably will never walk again." Right when he said that I took it as a challenge. He didn't know me. It's fine that he had all this medical information, but I had already convinced myself that I was going to walk again. Although his prognosis was correct, it wasn't going take away from what I would go on to accomplish in life.

Don't tell me I can't do it because I will.

That's how I've lived every aspect of my life, especially as an athlete. My love for sports started with T-ball when I was 5 years old, then became a lifelong passion. I fell in love with the concept of setting goals and achieving them. Sports have always been my thing. It's always been something that's motivated me and kind of kept my life on track.

I played various sports throughout the years, but when I got to high school, I really focused on fastpitch softball. I wanted to go to college on a softball scholarship and had big dreams of going to the Olympic Games. My plans would be permanently altered during my senior year of high school on a backcountry skiing trip with my buddies.

It was early in the season, on November 19, 2000. In Southern Colorado, there's usually very little to no snow, but we happened to have an early-season snowfall that year. There wasn't a base, but my friends and I were champing at the bit. We were 17 years old and felt like we were 10 feet tall. We were ready to go.

I had been obsessing about doing a backflip all summer. I had set my mind on it and wouldn't get over it until I did it. I'd practiced a backflip on a trampoline while on my snowboard, so I thought I was prepared. At the end of the day, while still on my snowboard, I decided impulsively that I was going to try that first backflip. Before my friends could say anything, I was sliding down the hill towards the jump. My last thought was that I didn't want to under rotate. I threw my feet over my head as hard as I could, ended up doing a one-and-a-half flip, and landed directly on my back on. What I later learned, there was a boulder underneath the snow.

The impact and density of the landing broke my back in three places and immediately paralyzed me on the spot. I felt this wild feeling. An electric jolt took over my body. I felt the feeling leave my waist down to my toes, which was really confusing. I asked my friend where my board and my boots went because I thought they flew right off my feet. When he told me they were on my feet, I realized there was a problem. I couldn't feel them. I was airlifted out of the area and underwent eight-hour back reconstruction surgery. I learned that I had shattered my T11 vertebrae and broke T10 and T12. There was a lot of work done to reconstruct my spine.

I'd been knocked all the way back down. How do I get dressed? How do I move from my hospital bed to my wheelchair and back? I had to learn how to sit up again. After being told I would never walk again, I dedicated every second of my life to trying to prove them wrong. I worked at walking again for the following two years. I did outpatient rehab for the entire time. I did end up getting on what's called long leg braces. After two years, I realized it wasn't happening for me. I was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

A few months later, I was in college at The University of New Mexico, and nothing was turning out the way I thought it might. I had all these fun ideas about college. I thought I'd be playing softball, cruising around in my high heels, cute dresses and going to parties. Instead, I was so uncomfortable in my skin and misunderstood by everybody who saw me, including all the boys who always used to be very attracted to me. The wheelchair threw them all off. It was a very hard time.

In college, I had what I call a God moment. I was at the lowest point in my recovery post-injury, and I didn't want to live anymore. It wasn't fun. I was moping around campus and ended up taking a shortcut through the auxiliary gym. That's when I saw a whole team of people playing wheelchair basketball. I would've never seen it if I hadn't taken that shortcut.

At this point, I had never even seen a person in a wheelchair my age, and I didn't know anything about the Paralympics. This was back in 2000, so there was no Instagram, Facebook, or all the fun social media platforms and apps we have now to understand these things. Going through the gym, I saw all these people in chairs who were super athletic all getting after it. They were hitting each other, falling over, getting up, and shooting three balls in a stationary position. My jaw dropped. That day, I got into a basketball chair to see how it felt. I met another woman, Loraine Gonzales, a women's wheelchair basketball player. She motivated me to get me into a chair.

Loraine got me into a chair. I was kind of hesitant, but she wasn't having it. I got into it and immediately felt athletic. For the first time, I felt like I was running again. I got my heart rate up and realized that I hadn't moved the whole two years after my injury. That's what really led to that depressive state. I quickly learned I wanted to do more of this, and I wanted to push really fast. I started thinking about what possibilities lay ahead.

What helped so much was seeing other folks like me and not feeling so alone and isolated. Everybody was in the same boat. Everybody had their own injury story, or maybe they were born with their disability, but we were all in this together. We all had a passion and a love for this sport called basketball, which I played for 10 years before my injury. I knew the game and loved the game, so I adapted very well.

I ended up playing with the wheelchair basketball team at the University of New Mexico for a full year after that. I met a woman who felt like I was raw talent and told me about this program at the University of Arizona that had an all-women's team. I made the hard decision of transferring from UNM to U of A, but that's when I learned about the Paralympic Games. After my first season at Arizona, I was given the opportunity to try out for the Paralympic team. In 2004, I was named to the Athens team that went to the Paralympics. I was an alternate and didn't go, but that was such a game-changer for me because I was able to start training with the best in the world. I don't know if I would've made it to Beijing in 2008 if I didn't start training with the team at that time.

After winning gold in wheelchair basketball in Beijing, I knew I wanted to get back on that proverbial horse that bucked me off. It was always kind of in the back of my head. I was ready to get back to skiing. While training for basketball, I researched Paralympic Alpine skiing. Anything competitive gets my juices flowing. I knew after Beijing, that's what I wanted to do.

Before I left for Beijing, I had taken a trip out to Denver. There's a little ski town near Winter Park, Colorado, where the National Sports Center for the Disabled is. I sat down with a coach and told him that I wanted to go to Beijing and win gold [for wheelchair basketball]. I was manifesting. I told him that I'd put the money that I'd win in Beijing towards his program to become an Alpine skier and go to the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver. He looked me dead in the eye and told me that I probably should think about the 2014 Games. I had the same attitude towards him that I had towards the doctor who told me I would never walk again. I would show him.

It was a ridiculous dream, but I went off to Winter Park and made the Paralympic team my first year. I somehow won the downhill in the super-G national title, then found myself at the 2010 Winter Paralympics. And it was just such a whirlwind. I skied like I had nothing to lose, and I won it all. I won four medals -- two gold, one silver, one bronze -- in 2010.

It was a phenomenal experience because I became the first woman to win gold in the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. From there, I wanted to see what else was possible. I participated in basketball in London in 2012 and skiing in 2014 in Sochi. After Sochi, I got a little beat down. I ended up crashing, getting knocked out and having stitches put in my face. I needed to rest, so I ended up going on vacation to Hawaii with my grandma. That vacation was when I learned to surf through a program called AccesSurf. So much for resting.

After getting back into the water, I realized that the Paralympics would be debuting paracanoe in 2016 for the Rio Paralympic Games. Nobody had done a third sport. I was ready to get after it.

I dove into this third sport with no prior knowledge. It turns out it was the hardest one I've ever done. Totally unenjoyable. I didn't like it, but I committed. It was so much hard work, but it paid off in the surfing realm because I became one of the best adaptive surfing females in the world and won some world titles there. I finished 7th in paracanoe in the Rio Paralympic Games but celebrated like I just won the gold.

It was important for me to continue to follow through with something I said I was going to do. And that really felt like one of the biggest lessons. Who am I going to be, and how am I going to show up knowing that it's not about winning but doing the best I can with what I have? It was an everyday challenge to pick up that goal, and I did that, so I was proud of myself.

At this point in life, I am still in love with setting goals and accomplishing them. I'm passionate about adaptive surfing now. It's my lifelong sport. Everybody picks one of those, like golf or tennis, but I'm surfing off into the sunset.

A lot of my focus now is giving back. It's like I've gotten to do it all and still get to surf, and I still compete in surfing because I love that high-pressure situation and competition. And I really hope that by doing that, I continue to inspire other people, other young women, to do what they love. And if they love competing and adaptive surfing, I hope they have the opportunity to do that at a Paralympic level.

I'm also a Team Toyota athlete. I've been a longtime believer in the product, but I dreamt of being a part of Team Toyota before it was the largest Paralympic sponsor. I think that the support that Toyota gives athletes like myself to realize their dreams is huge, but more importantly, they're about mobility solutions, and that's a big aspect of what is changing the lives of so many. It's bigger than sports. It's about mobility, and as an athlete transitioning out of full-time competition, I'm just so grateful to be working with a company that believes in mobility and truly enables people with disabilities to live their best lives.

In the middle of this, I'm also a full-time mom with a two-year-old. My son, Gunner, keeps me super busy. I've been staying active with the Women's Sports Foundation. And hopefully creating more opportunities to be an advocate through that. And more recently, I just did the Tokyo Paralympic Games for NBC. I was sideline reporting there for wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby and really loved that.

My husband, Roy, also helps me balance my new adventures. He runs a nonprofit, the High Fives Foundation. He started the foundation in 2009 to support folks with spinal cord and brain injuries getting back into sports. Roy broke his back as well in a skiing accident. He ended up recovering, and he can walk, but we're cut from the same cloth.

Now, I hope to continue to motivate others. I was that 17-year-old girl that had just broken her back, lying hopelessly in a hospital bed. I didn't have anybody to look to or look up to. And it wasn't because they weren't out there. It was because we didn't have exposure as we do now. It continues to be my motivation to go big and to show up. I know that somebody needs to see it.

I've met presidents and walked red carpets at the ESPYs and done like all these amazing things, and I totally love that, but I also know that this is bigger than me. I want that young girl who just lost her leg in a climbing accident, because I just met her recently, to see that not only can you go off to college and get your master's degree, but you can also go to the Paralympics and win gold medals.

Set your dreams higher than you've ever expected, and don't let society's misunderstanding of disability put any standards on you. Dream big.