Back in 1998, in Nagano, Japan, Nikki Stone became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal for inverted aerial skiing. Even more astonishing is that several months prior to her Olympic triumph, Nikki suffered a spinal injury that nearly ended her career.
STACK caught up with the high flyer to discuss how she fought back to accomplish her lifelong goal.
STACK: How did you first get involved with aerial skiing?
Nikki Stone: I was a gymnast growing up, and my family skied recreationally. I saw in a magazine a picture of people jumping into a pool on skis, and I thought it looked like a fun thing to try. I really didn’t have any aspirations to go to the Olympics at that time . . . although, as a young girl, I told my parents I was going to win the Olympics some day, [but] it was always for gymnastics. [When] I was 18, I tried aerial skiing for the first time, and on the third day, the head coach had me try a double back flip. I was terrified. It was really hard for me. I didn’t want to let him down, or all the other athletes [who] were looking to see if the rookie was going to go off the jump. I took that leap of faith, and it changed my life.
STACK: Ironically, you have a fear of heights. What goes through your mind when you’re in the air?
NS: I remind myself that I’ve done it hundreds of times, and I know what I am doing. I always tell people it’s okay to have fears, because it actually keeps you on your toes. The people that get hurt are the ones who stop thinking and don’t take precautions. I take 100 jumps into a pool before I’m allowed to even take it to the snow. There are so many safety requirements.
STACK: What was it like taking your first jump during a competition?
NS: I was still scared, but [I] focused on [my] fears, [which] helped me block out the 40,000 people at the bottom of the hill [and] the camera that was six inches from my face.
STACK: Unfortunately, you suffered a severe injury that nearly ended your career. What was that experience like, and what motivated you to bounce back?
NS: It was a really challenging time for me. I actually went into a depression. I ended up hurting my back [from too many jumps], and doctors [told] me I wouldn’t be able to jump again. It was devastating. I tried every exercise and procedure possible. I had injections in my back. I had physical therapy to burn the nerve endings so I wouldn’t feel pain anymore.
Even though doctors were telling me it would be impossible to jump again, nobody knows your body like you do. I knew that I was going to come back. I was motivated from a picture I found of boxer Joe Frazier, who won a gold medal in boxing with a broken fist. I figured, “This man needs his fists for boxing as much as I need my back for jumping. If he could come back, why couldn’t I?”
STACK: During your recovery, was there ever a time when you thought about giving up?
NS: I never gave up, even when I was going through that depression. [I always hoped] I could come back. It was a challenging time. People said to me, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and just start thinking positively.” That’s hard to do, and I had to find that on my own and be ready to come back when I was ready.
STACK: How long was the recovery process before you could get back into jumping?
NS: At least seven months before I finally started working with the doctor [from Boston], and it was another five months before I got back on snow and started jumping. At that point, I had a year [to prepare] before the Olympics.
STACK: When you finally made it back to full health, did you ever fear that you could possibly reinjure yourself?
NS: It’s always in the back of my head, but I was so happy to be jumping again. To overcome something that a lot of people believed I couldn’t gave me confidence. I was able to jump again when 10 doctors told me it would be impossible. If you’re constantly thinking of the “what ifs?” then you’re never going to progress.
STACK: What was it like to finally reach your goal at the ’98 Olympics?
NS: It was a lifetime goal that I’d had since I was five, and it took 22 years to reach it. It was something that I couldn’t believe was a reality when it happened. It felt surreal. I didn’t realize that I was in the moment. To be able to stand on the podium, hear the national anthem and [think about] every single person that stood by me along the way was amazing.
STACK: What advice would you offer STACK readers about how to achieve success in sports and in life?
NS: In some way, we all feel we aren’t reaching our goals. People who are motivated to be successful are never satisfied with what they’ve done, and [therefore] push themselves with new goals and new dreams. There’s always going to be [a goal] that you’re not going to reach. It’s more the excitement of striving to reach that point than actually getting to the ultimate achievement.