Snowriding: Paralyzed woman flying high at Paralympics

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By The Staff

FARMINGTON (AP) — Sports enthusiast Alana Nichols was a senior at Farmington High School in 2000 when she broke her back in a snowboarding accident and lost the use of her legs.

"I didn't think I'd be able to ski anymore," Nichols said.

Ten years later, Nichols skis competitively around the world and is ranked the fastest female adaptive skier in the country by the International Paralympics Committee. She came home from the 2010 IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup in Sestriere, Italy, with five medals. Two of them were gold. The victory is the latest stop on a long, hard road for the natural athlete, who will compete in the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada, later this month.

Nichols always prioritized athletics, even before her accident. Before she was hurt, she played on the varsity softball team that won state that year, said Nichols' grandmother, Joan Vilven.

She intended to make softball her career. Because she had well-developed upper body strength before her accident, Nichols had less of a physical barrier to cross to start competing again. However, there was an emotional component she had to conquer first.

"It was very hard for me, emotionally, to get back into sports. It just wasn't the same," Nichols said. "I remember playing wheelchair softball for the first time. I began crying. It just wasn't the same."

Her athletic career potentially finished, Nichols moved to Albuquerque to start college at the University of New Mexico. That was where she discovered wheelchair basketball, Vilven said.

The athlete started playing pickup games and practices and eventually was recruited to go play in Arizona. I always wanted to be challenged and push my body to the limit, Nichols said.

"Basketball was when I first realized I could compete and compete well at an elite level."

She went on to play for the University of Arizona and University of Alabama and is a member of the U.S. wheelchair basketball team that won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China. As her basketball career developed, Nichols began to become reacquainted with the ski slope, first trying a monoski at Santa Fe Ski Area while in college.

After skiing recreationally for a few years, Nichols started racing last season.

"Being ranked as one of the fastest skiers in the world is pretty amazing," Nichols said. "I love skiing so much, it's just amazing to get to go that fast."

Funding sometimes can be a problem for Paralympics athletes, who don't draw the same sponsors and media attention Olympic athletes do. Family friend Bruce Higgins was frustrated by the lack of coverage of the wheelchair basketball games in China.

"These people have had their lives potentially taken right into the ground by an accident, and they come back instead of just sitting in a wheelchair and vegetating for the rest of their lives," Higgins said.

Nichols does have sponsors, mainly companies from the Four Corners who are friends of her family. Since she is relatively new to competitive alpine adaptive skiing, she does not have any large national sponsors like other members of the team.

Matt Camacho, a friend of Nichols from high school, is helping defray Nichols costs of competing by holding a fundraising dinner and silent auction.

"She's just an awesome, inspiring person," Camacho said. "I just have all the faith in the world that she's going to go up to Canada and come back with a ton of medals."