Next week in Rio, Alana Nichols will attempt to make history as the first female U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in three sports.
“Pioneering the possibilities is really important to me,” Nichols, 33, told PEOPLE of joining Team U.S.A.’s inaugural paracanoe team. “There are other women – younger women – with disabilities who need to know it’s possible and for me that’s motivating.”
Nichols, who earned a gold medal in wheelchair basketball at the Beijing Games in 2008 and two gold medals in skiing alpine skiing at the Vancouver Games in 2010, is already the first female U.S. Paralympian to win gold in both summer and winter sports.
At age 17, a traumatic snowboarding accident during which she landed on a boulder and broke her back in three places left Nichols paralyzed from the waist down.
“I had big plans to travel the world and meet the man of my dreams and get married, but my dreams got crushed along with my back,” she said. “It was really devastating and I sat in it for about two years.”
Then Nichols got involved in adaptive sports, and she found new ways to live her dreams. She competed in wheelchair basketball at the Beijing Games in 2008 and then returned to the slopes, this time as a seated skier, at the 2010 Games. By June 2013, she was a three-time gold medalist.
Then in 2014, a crash at the Winter Games in Sochi left her with a concussion, dislocated jaw and stitches in her chin. After this crash, Nichols said she took her grandmother to Hawaii, where she surfed for the first time using a wave ski, a shortboard she’s able to strap herself onto.
After taking up surfing, she said, “I knew I wanted to be on the water every day.” This desire to remain on the water led her to sprint kayaking, a new Paralympic sport that Nichols is excited to develop. It also helps that surfing, her beloved hobby, counts as cross training.
“Surfing is my release from the hard workload that I have. I try to keep it non-competitive because everything I do is competitive,” she said.
That said, Nichols is a huge proponent of getting athletes with disabilities engaged in sports competitions.
“I’ve been so lucky to be involved in these sports because it has given me this sense of confidence,” she said. “Being successful in any capacity gives you the ability that extra life you need to go about your day.”
Nichols shared her story on behalf of investment and insurance company The Hartford, an investment and insurance company and longtime sponsor of Paralympic athletes.
In a study conducted by the company, 42 percent of respondents said they believe that those with physical disabilities are unable to perform most jobs done by able-bodied individuals, become physically fit, be as productive as able-bodied people and become world-class athletes.
Nichols and her fellow athletes train their hardest every day to wipe out this misconception among able-bodied people and people with disabilities alike.
“My story proves that given the right frame of mind, we can still reach our fullest potential as athletes despite disabilities,” she said. “With the right technology anything is possible.”