National Sports Center for the Disabled athlete Alana Nichols, 27, burst into tears after winning her first gold at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
For her, it was more than just a medal.
She was skiing for her two-years-older brother, D.J., who had died unexpectedly last June.
"I basically was skiing for him," Nichols said. "I felt his presence that day. It was an amazing moment to have actually accomplished what I wanted and have my brother there with me."
Her first of a total of four Vancouver medals was earned during a rainy day on the giant slalom course. Having never skied in rain before, the sit skier found slushy snow to be an advantage and finished 1.5 seconds ahead of everyone else after the first run. A consistent second run put her on top for the gold.
"I burst into tears the second I saw my time. It meant a lot to me. A culmination of emotions were coming together," she said.
Nichols broke her back in a snowboarding accident at the age of 17. Having always been active, two years later she began playing wheelchair basketball at the University of Arizona, which led to joining the U.S. Paralympics Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team in 2005. Basketball sports scholarships provided the means to put her through school in Arizona and Alabama, where she earned a master's degree in kinesiology.
Although she has been an adaptive skier since 2002, she didn't join NSCD until after a 2008 gold-medal win competing on the Paralympic women's basketball team.
After just two years of ski-race training under NSCD, Nichols picked up four medals during the Vancouver Games, the most of any U.S. adaptive skiing athlete.
She earned gold in both the downhill and giant slalom, a bronze in the super combined event and a silver in the super-G, just 2.79 seconds behind gold medalist Claudia Loesch of Austria.
"I skied really well and consistently throughout the games and couldn't have asked for more," she said.
If NSCD were a nation competing in the Games, it would have been a country tough to beat.
NSCD athletes earned more than half of the alpine medals garnered by Team USA.
Visually Impaired U.S. sker Danelle Umstead with her guide and husband Rob Umstead brought home two bronze medals, one in the downhill and one in the super combined event. The NSCD athletes maintained their competitive reputation on the world skiing stage, with third place finishes in World Cup races in 2009 and 2010.
Back home on Tuesday, Umstead said they were "overwhelmed, excited and happy."
"We've been working and training really hard the last two seasons. It's exhilarating to know that the hard work pays off," she said.
Another NSCD trained skier Adam Hall garnered a gold medal in the standing division of the Paralympics slalom competition. Hall, who has been involved with NSCD for five years, skied for his native New Zealand.
His gold "was a dream come true for him," said NSCD alpine coach Erik Petersen, "and also for me."
The NSCD has become a development hub for athletes from many national federations.
"People come from all over the world to train with us," Petersen said. "People don't realize the class of athlete we have right in our backyard."
Alpine athletes at the Vancouver Games were not only challenged by the competition, Petersen said, but the weather.
Rain, snow and fog were distractions for the better part of the alpine week, causing schedule changes that delayed the downhill events and moved the slalom competition to the front.
"It was difficult on the athletes," Petersen said, citing long waits for fog to clear before starts, and athletes having only one training day seven days prior to their downhill competition.
But "it was the same for everybody," the NSCD coach continued. "Variables in ski racing you can't control, and weather is one of them. But you can control your attitudes towards it."
That was sound advice for Umstead and Nichols, who competed on one of the worst weather days of the games during the giant slalom races. For visually impaired skier Umstead, the weather impacted her run, unlike Nichols. The rain on her goggles during the March 16 race clouded what little vision she has left. She and her guide-husband placed eighth.
Despite the adverse weather conditions, Peterson considered the Vancouver courses fair due to "tremendous snow preparation."
And when the weather looked as though it could wear on some athletes down in later races, Petersen said he reminded them: "Your good attitude will pay huge dividends."
For those few, it truly did.
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.