So much of life is about how you handle the obstacles put in front of you—no matter how overwhelming they might be. You can choose to let those challenges take you off course, or you can choose to build a life that’s bigger and better than you ever imagined. Thirty-one-year-old Paralympic athlete Alana Nichols, who is the only American female to medal in both the summer and winter Olympic Games, chose the latter.
An avid athlete from the age of five, Nichols spent her childhood playing t-ball, volleyball, and basketball. By senior year of high school, the star athlete was fielding offers to pursue her dream of nabbing a softball scholarship. Then, at age 17, the life that she had carefully planned for herself veered off course. A snowboarding accident left her with a broken back, hospitalized for four months, and unable to walk. Nichols managed to graduate with her class on time and head to college at the University of New Mexico that fall. The first two years after the accident were painful and challenging, causing Nichols to question everything. “For so long my identity was about being an athlete,” she says. “I was all about setting goals and achieving them—that’s where I got my confidence. So when I didn’t have those endorphins running through me, I felt depressed and hopeless.”
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Everything changed when she was 19 and introduced to wheelchair basketball. “It was such a catalyst,” Nichols shares. “When I accepted that this was my new reality, and saw the possibilities, I started thinking positively about my future.” She transferred to the University of Arizona to be a part of their wheelchair basketball program, qualifying for the U.S. Paralympics Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Team in 2005, and in 2008 they brought home the gold. “Being on the podium and looking back on where I was when I broke my back, there was just this incredible feeling of accomplishment.”
Nichols quickly realized that if she could play basketball, she could find a way to adapt to the other sports she loved including surfing, kayaking, and even skiing. Despite the fact that her injury had occurred while on the slopes, Nichols wasn’t afraid to get on the mountain again. “It wasn’t so much fear of getting hurt, but I was afraid to be disappointed. I wanted to be the person I used to be and adaptive skiing was really difficult,” Nichols reveals, adding. “Then my competitive side kicked in.”
Soon, Nichols was ski racing competitively, “I’m a thrill-seeker so monoskiing was was perfect for me. I loved going fast again.” At the 2010 winter Paralympic Games she took home two gold and two silver medals. In 2011 at the International Paralympic Competition she won Alpine Skiing World Championships, was first downhill, and named Paralympic Athlete of the Year. At the 2013 the World Cup in Moritz, she was third in the giant slalom. This year, she was confident going into Sochi. “Having won four medals in Vancouver, I had some high expectations. I was hoping that I could at least match my medal count if not better it,” she says. In the women’s downhill Nichols slid out of her bucket, but was able to get back in and finish the race. Despite coming in second by a 10th of a second, Nichols felt defeated. “It was so devastating. I didn’t feel like I won the silver, but that I lost the gold,” Nichols says. She was knocked unconscious in her next race and helicoptered to safety, which forced her to re-evaluate her perspective on competition. “One thing I know to be true about sports and life is that there are no guarantees. I have to enjoy what I’m doing, not make it all about winning.”
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Today Nichols is training for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Braziland competing in wheelchair basketball. She’s based in Denver and trains at the National Sports Center for the Disabled. Working out is a constant part of her life. To balance the constant pushing she does with her arms in her wheelchair, Nichols swims, rows, and works out her core with a Bosu ball. “For basketball I have to build more strength than for skiing.” When it’s time to train for skiing again, Nichols will re-craft her body and strength to suit the sport. “Skiing is about obliques and balance, which means lots of yoga, planks, cat cows, plus intensive weights and core work.”
Not surprisingly, exercise is what makes Nichols feel beautiful. She loves makeup; “I haven’t not worn mascara for almost 20 years,” she says. “It’s my staple item and it just gives you that little bit of definition that makes you feel beautiful.” Rimmel is a favorite brand. When she’s racing downhill she adds foundation to cut out the redness that comes from the cold, relying on Nuetrogena Shine Free foundation and Skinceuticals sunscreen to protect her skin. Being in the spotlight as a medal-winning athlete, sponsored by brands like BMW and Nike, has made her comfortable in the spotlight. “I wore my friend’s prom dress to my first red carpet,” she says. “It was way too big, but I’ve learned to be more prepared!” That means liquid liner in a dark emerald green with shimmer shadow, her go-to red carpet makeup. “If you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good you play well. Everything is attached to your overall confidence and self esteem.”
Having found that confidence, Alana tries to help young Paralympic athletes and people who are recovering from life changing injuries discover it within themselves. “It’s hard to tell anyone newly disabled that it’s all going to be OK. But it is.” When Nichols reflects back on the past 14 years, she’s proud of having overcome her extraordinary hurdles, including the loss of her brother, and having turned her passion for sports into a major career. She’s found solace and strength in being an athlete: “Sports have saved me from life, and kept me on track. I’m so thankful.”
This article originally appeared on Yahoo Beauty.