This time, Alana Nichols simply did not feel like picking herself back up.
“I’m in a wheelchair already,” said Nichols. “I had one working limb, I was working on the other one, and then I fall on my face and I was just broken, I was just so beat down.”
Nichols had just competed in her fourth Paralympic Games. Having already made history by becoming the first American female to win gold in both the Summer and Winter games, Nichols was coming back for more in Sochi in 2014. But in the women’s Super-G downhill sitting event, Nichols suffered a severe fall, losing consciousness on the hill after landing face-first on her run. It was the second of two major skiing injuries Nichols had endured in as many years. Possibly even worse than that, were the flashbacks that came with the falls. Dragging her back to being 17, when she attempted a backflip on her snowboard, over-rotated, and landed with her back on a rock. That accident left her paralyzed from the waist down.
“For an athlete, I was devastated,” remembers Nichols, who was a multi-sport athlete growing up. “I thought my athletic career was over and I didn’t really know who I was for a while.”
“Funny story though,” Nichols said with a smile, nearly two decades later. “Not only was it not over, it was just beginning for me as a Paralympic athlete. I’m so grateful to have had the perfect people come into my life and organizations that were established for folks with disabilities to play and I got back into it. That’s truthfully what saved my life after my injury.”
It certainly couldn’t have felt life-saving though when Nichols came to consciousness on the snowy Russian slopes in Sochi. With six Paralympic medals, three gold, two silver and a bronze, spanning two sports, skiing and wheelchair basketball, Nichols needed a reset.
She planned a vacation with the grandmother who raised her to the Pearl Harbor Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, Nichols experienced what she described as divine intervention.
Access Surf, a Hawaii-based non-profit, reached out to the then 31-year old. With the mission of making it possible for people with disabilities to participate in adaptive water sports, ocean recreation and therapeutic instruction, Access Surf had everything Nichols needed to catch her first wave.
And like almost every surfer – it took just one wave to get her hooked.
“It was like, no question,” Nichols remembers with a smile. “I caught that first wave and I just couldn’t help but think, ‘how am I going to keep doing this? Like, for the rest of my life.’ It was love at first sight.”
The answer to the question of, ‘how am I going to keep doing this?’ was two-fold. First, Nichols moved to San Diego in 2015, making the ocean much more accessible. Second, she connected with the International Surfing Association (ISA) the organization recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the World Governing Authority for Surfing.
While honing her own skills on the waves that were now in her backyard, Nichols began the work necessary to include surfing in the Paralympics. In 2015, ISA held the first ever World Adaptive Surf Championships in La Jolla, one of San Diego’s coastal communities.
“I can't even find the words to express how truly magical it was to see all of these folks from all over the world, South America, all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand, everybody coming in,”: said Nichols. “And we're all just looking at each other like, ‘oh, that's what you did.’ ‘This is what I did.’ ‘This is how I get in the water.’ And that was really the beginning of the movement towards the Paralympic inclusion.”
With their Olympic counterpart making its’ debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Nichols and her fellow parasurfing advocates felt the sport’s popular debut gave them the green light to focus their push for inclusion. The strides they’ve made have been significant. From 69 competitors representing 18 countries in that inaugural 2015 World Para Surfing Championship, to more than 180 athletes from 28 countries competing in last year’s Championship. The feeling around the adaptive surfing community is things look promising for the sport’s inclusion in the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.
The sport’s growth is measurable. For Nichols, the gratification of the increasing possibility of parasurfing’s Paralympic inclusion, is profoundly immeasurable.
“When you have that platform, you have this giant goal to work towards, and there's nothing more motivating than being able to train and compete in the sport that you love at a Paralympic level,” explained Nichols. “A lot of my motivation right now getting the Paralympic inclusion for surfing is I just want to see those little groms that I've gotten to teach how to surf, get the opportunity to compete at the most elite level.”
Competing at the most elite level is something Nichols is certainly familiar with in the world of surfing. In the eight years since that first wave, Nichols has added two World Adaptive Surfing Championship medals to keep her six Paralympic medals company and has had the opportunity to surf waves around the world.
The opportunities she loves as much as her own waves, are the ones where she’s sharing the stoke of surfing with someone else.
“My purpose is rooted in the fact that surfing is so therapeutic,” said Nichols. “It is so healthy and good for your soul and your mind and your body. So, I just want people to have that experience. That's truly what drives me.”
An added bonus to surfing and teaching is the reaction Nichols gets when she tells people she’s a surfer.
“It’s the best reaction because surfing, by itself, is hugely intimidating for able bodied people alone,” said Nichols. “So to know that a person with a disability, a significant disability is brave enough and willing to get out in the water and then has the knowledge to read the ocean, I think it truly is inspiring. And not in like a cheesy, patronizing way. It's like, ‘dang, really, you do that?’ ‘Yeah. Let me tell you all about it. I've taught a lot of able bodied people how to surf too. So it's pretty cool to just shift their perspective a little bit.”
For Nichols, that’s what it all comes back to; shifting the perspective of what’s possible.
It’s what people did for her at 17 when she thought her athletic career was over.
It’s what surfing did for her when she wasn’t sure she could get back up again.
It’s what she does for every person who crosses her path.
For every person with a disability who never thought they would be able to experience the healing power of the ocean. For every able-bodied person for whom the sight of a woman in a wheelchair surfing some of the world’s best wave.
Limits only have the power we give them.
** To learn more about the movement to include surfing in the 2028 LA Paralympic Games, visit isasurf.org.
Story by AJ McCord.
Our mission at Sensi Graves Swim is to empower women in watersports, share stories that inspire and strive to do better for our female athletes. We want to see equal pay, equal prize money, equal media coverage and equal representation for womxn in the water. Read more about our story here.