FARMINGTON — Alana Nichols is no stranger to mountain crashes. She is also familiar with making triumphant comebacks.
Nichols, a 30-year-old Farmington native, is a Paralympic athlete and the first American woman with gold medals in both the summer and winter games. Four years after claiming two gold medals at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver, Nichols is preparing for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Nichols was paralyzed in 2000 when attempting a back flip on a snowboard. Nichols over-rotated and landed on a rock paralyzing her from the waist down. Two years later, Nichols found wheelchair basketball, which earned her a scholarship at the University of Arizona. She was later named to the U.S. Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team, and she won a gold medal in the sport during the 2008 Beijing games.
In 2010, Nichols won two gold medals as well as a silver and a bronze medal in Paralympic downhill skiing events in Vancouver.
But Nichols' road to Sochi took a serious hit in June when she dislocated a shoulder in a high-speed crash at Timberline on Mount Hood in Oregon. After the accident, Nichols endured surgery and months of physical therapy at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
On Saturday, Nichols had to clip off the June 16 lift ticket from the day of the crash before replacing it with a Copper Mountain lift ticket. It was her first day on the slopes since the injury.
"I imagined how scary it might be and my shoulder was feeling vulnerable. It made a big difference getting back on snow and feeling how in control I am of the ski," Nichols said in a phone interview on Wednesday from Colorado. "I had a lot of anxiety and was anticipating getting back on the snow, but it is kind of like riding a bike. I picked it right back up. I got over the initial hesitation and the stuff in my head and got back to skiing. I think a lot of it for me was mental."The 2001 Farmington graduate's first race since the crash is set for Dec. 9 at Copper Mountain. She then plans on participating in a few World Cup events in Europe in January before returning for a few domestic races in final preparation for the Sochi Winter Games Feb. 7 through 23.
"I want to get back in the whole mind set of racing, but I don't want to put any pressure on myself to perform," said Nichols, who is already qualified for the 2014 Paralympic Games. "Racing is not a huge priority, but I want to be in good race shape before Sochi."
Nichols visited her family and friends in Farmington twice following her accident in June. Those who know her best always expected her return to the Paralympics.
"We expected she would be able to finish rehab and go to Sochi. We never doubted she would be able to make it," said Nichols' grandmother Joan Vilven. "She is a very special person, and an inspiration to all of us."
Nichols hopes to compete in at least four downhill skiing events in Sochi again this year, but she isn't focused on defending her 2010 medals. "I used to say I have medals to defend, but I have since changed my vocabulary around that. Those medals are mine. I don't have to defend them. They will always be mine," Nichols said. "Now, it is about competing as well as I can and hopefully performing to my potential. I might be a gold medalist from Vancouver, but those have no effect on me in Sochi."
Nichols, a two-time ESPY award nominee who also pens a blog for ESPN W, a website for womens' sports, has stayed busy in recent weeks, including her participation in the "100 Days Out" celebration in Times Square in New York City on Oct. 29.
"It has been a lot of fun. A lot of the media stuff can be wearing at times, but it is the best job in the world," Nichols said. "Getting to promote the Paralympics and educate people on what people with disabilities are capable of is a dream come true. It is a lot of fun being around all the athletes who are preparing for the games and getting stoked. It is a momentum builder for me as an athlete."
Nichols has begun to look ahead to what comes after Sochi. She is beginning to think about competing in wheelchair basketball at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, though she hasn't taken any shots since her shoulder surgery. She said she won't make a decision on 2016 until she finishes in Sochi, where she hopes to stay injury-free.
"It is always exciting to see Alana. I expect she will be in more than one more Olympics," Vilven said. "I expect her to play basketball and continue skiing. With adaptive skiing, age is not as much of a factor as it is with able-body skiers. Adaptive skiers can compete well into their 40s and even 50s."
Nichols' adventures continue to take her all over the globe, but she still finds strength from her supporters in Farmington.
"My friends, family and the community of Farmington have been there from Day 1. It is funny, no matter what happens, I still feel like I have that community behind me," she said. "It means the world to me that I get to share my journey with such an awesome community."John Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.