This interview had our host in tears. In today’s episode, Majo speaks with Paralympic Gold Medalist Alana Nichols. Playing sports was like a safe haven for Alana, whose family life wasn’t always ideal. But at 17, she broke her back in a snowboarding accident that left her unable to walk again. As a lifelong athlete, this was devastating.
Alana grappled with denial, depression, and isolation in college, until a magical moment turned everything around. Her story is about the power of practice, discipline, grit, and faith. And she has powerful insights to share on gratitude — seeing what we have instead of what we don’t have.
What I needed most wasn’t offered to me until I was ready.
— Alana Nichols
Alana: It was a very tough transition going home after rehab, because everything that I knew about my life that was very normal, like my bedroom, my bathroom, school, I had to experience in this new way. Being in a wheelchair was very frustrating — all the carpet in my house, the bathroom wasn’t accessible, everything in the kitchen was up in cabinets and too high. Just all of these physically frustrating things.
But I wasn’t terribly worried about it. I still thought that maybe it was just taking a while for my nerves to reconnect but it was still gonna happen.
Eventually I went on to college and I found myself in my dorm room… and this goes back to your question of when it all became real to me. This is about two years later, I’m in my dorm room, I’ve done everything I can possibly do to control what’s happening with my spinal cord injury and my disability, and I realized that I was never going to walk again, that the doctor had been right. And that was when I was at the lowest point in my life. That’s when I lost all hope for my future.
The athlete that I always was, that sense of confidence in myself as a person and feeling proud of who I was… I wasn’t an athlete anymore. I wasn’t anything like the person I used to be. I no longer knew who I was. I was at a loss for life.
Majo: Was it a particular moment in your dorm room that you recall of that realization dawning, or did it creep up on you slowly?
Alana: It had been building, absolutely. Going into college I still had a little bit of hope in my heart. But I was also having this experience where… I mean, I’d always had these ideas of how things would go for me. Going to college is this really exciting time for people. You’re off on your own for the first time and exploring all these new freedoms. And I saw all these girls that were my age who were having, what I perceived to be the time of their lives, going to parties, walking around in their flipflops… and I felt so misunderstood because it was such a short time ago that I was an able-bodied person myself as an athlete with all of these things going for me.
I was looking at all the things I didn’t have and all the things I couldn’t do and all the things that I’d lost. It was so toxic for my life. It drained me of all my energy. And what I was constantly doing was comparing my current self to who I was before my injury. And with that comparison I set myself up for failure every time. I wasn’t that person anymore.
It was at that lowest point that I took a shortcut through one of the gyms, a way I’d never gone before until that day. I was just pushing through the gym, head down, moping around, but when I looked up I saw this whole team of people, ten athletes in wheelchairs playing basketball. I was shocked. My jaw dropped, eyes wide open. It blew my mind…
- Growing up as a confident, active tomboy who found her identity in sports at a young age. [4:13]
- On always being a risk-taker and her dreams of playing Olympic Softball. [8:46]
- Coming into her identity as a young teen, dealing with social pressures, and missing the presence of a mother who wasn’t able to be there for her. [13:48]
- Playing sports in high school, being approached by colleges offering scholarships, and the accident that brought everything to a halt. [17:04]
- Reflecting on that critical moment in her journey when everything changed and her initial denial. [22:18]
- The hard transition Alana faced upon returning home after rehab. [30:05]
- How taking a chance shortcut led to Alana’s magical moment when she was at her lowest point. [35:25]
- Mourning her loss with grace, moving forward, and developing a new dream. [38:47]
- Alana’s journey to the Paralympics and beyond, her insights on risk-taking, and final words of wisdom. [45:23]
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Check out Alana’s website.