Go ahead and doubt Nicky Nieves. She will channel that incredulity and turn it into motivation.
Even the little things can get to her, cause her to back up and think to herself for a moment, are you really doubting me.
It happened to her on her run-up to the Rio Summer Games. Among her many training exercises was a daily run that she would walk at certain points. A friend inquired about the walking part, which is all Nieves needed to not only run every single time but to increase the length of her run and decrease the time in which they were completed.
“I know I can do it because I'm not looking at this stuff as an individual with only one hand, but it's more to prove people wrong,” Nieves tells En Fuego. “It's just one of those things, kind of like don't tempt me and don't test me because I'm going to prove you wrong.”
Nieves is a 31-year-old gold medalist on Team USA’s sitting volleyball team. She’s one of so many athletes dying to compete but left waiting and wondering as to if the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games will get their day in Tokyo.
A global pandemic had previously shuttered training and gym access. The defeats were constant at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I have nowhere to get any training in. The most I can do is touches in my house and in my back yard. Oh, I can't travel. Oh, our training site, it's closed. Like just back to back to back,” she said.
But Nieves has managed to turn nervous energy into a source of strength. And, again, using her inner strength to channel something like anxiety into something useful. A wave of emotions simply became, well, motivation.
“I'm upset about it, I'm a little bit depressed. I'm anxious,” Nieves said of not only losing competition but becoming increasingly isolated. The volleyball player doesn’t hide the fact that she dealt with a bout of depression. She writes about her battle in candid form on the Team USA website.
It’s a beautiful piece that champions the importance of mental health and the value of a support system, especially during this astounding time.
Nieves discovered that she could give in to these emotions if only for a moment. Let yourself be susceptible to the stress and then, most importantly, move on.
“But for me personally, I was just like, no. You’re done. You had your points to be sad about it and you have to kick it back into gear.”
The Heart of an Athlete
Nieves had some trepidation when she joined the sitting volleyball team. There was a question of identity for the athlete to answer. Or as she would soon discover, leave on the cutting room floor.
She had played volleyball at Queens College before the Paralympic team came calling and she was left to wonder whether she wanted to pivot within a sport she had played all her life on her own two feet.
“It was kind of just a struggle with identity. And I don't want to be identified as, you know, an athlete with a disability or a limb difference. I just wanted to be Nicki.”
For differently-abled athletes, a lot of what gets written or discussed inevitably centers on their bodies and far less about their athletic acumen, their sport or any number of ways that Olympic athletes might be covered.
People so often miss the best part of a Paralympian’s story when they concentrate so much on how this person became a Paralympian and not who they are as an athlete.
It’s a question Nieves had to grapple with as well.
“Like I said, just even moving from traditional to sitting volleyball, you don't want to be recognized as a girl with one hand that's playing the sport,” Nieves explained. “I want to be looked at as the girl that is averaging so many kills per game.”
Nieves met many of her current teammates in 2011, discovering in them more than a bunch of fellow volleyball players but women who were also just discovering the sport of sitting volleyball. Nieves likens it to other Paralympic sports.
“It's an adaptive sport, yes, but I'm still kicking butt,” Nieves said. “I'm still having to make sacrifices. I'm still having to train hard. For some athletes twice as hard because now you're needing extra equipment to be able to perform just like [with] wheelchair basketball. You need the right chair for your body. You know, a specific height. It's adaptive, but it doesn't make it any less than. So, I feel like with all para-athletes, look at me for my ability and my skills first before you look at anything else.”
When it comes to sitting volleyball, there was a learning curve to be sure. You can lean on years of muscle memory and technique, but you are thrown into a gauntlet of having to basically relearn how to move around the court.
In the end, she found a group that was more than a team and much more like a family.
“So we're all kind of starting from the ground up,” Nieves said of her initial days with Team USA. “It was beautiful. And then getting to travel with them and represent the USA. All of that together. It made me really just grow an appreciation for the game and feel like I really had a place, like this was my home in the sports world and I just stuck with it.”
Sticking with it earned her quite a beautiful moment in 2016. Going up against the heralded Chinese team, the U.S. squad came out victorious and took the gold medal, something they hope to replicate when the Paralympic Games return.
“It's awesome to see your hard work come to fruition,” she tells En Fuego. “All of the goals that we set for ourselves and really setting our personal selves aside for, you know, the goal of the team was a big one.”
A lot of our conversation touches on identity. An athlete raised on playing volleyball gives a different form of the sport a try, finding her home in the process.
Nieves is also an Afro-Latino daughter of Puerto Rican parents. Growing up in New York City, she saw herself in so many people walking around her neighborhood. But it’s when she got older and went to Queens College that she saw the lack of representation at higher levels of the volleyball world.
“It's scarce. It's really, really scarce,” Nieves explained on how many volleyball players of color she has seen over the years.
“So for me, it's just been really big, especially within the last two years, just to use my platform for representation, to show others that even if you don't see yourself within your team or within an organization, don't let that hinder you from being the best that you can possibly be. And for going for a position and just showing people that there's no limits.”
She is also someone who is quick to embrace every part of what makes her who she is. That means forgetting about the potential divisiveness of being an Afro-Latina athlete.
“I kind of felt like I had to pick one or the other. I was either too Latina for the Black kids or I was too black for the Latinos and now just kind of meshing it together and really just educating people like, no, you don't have to pick a side. This is who you are. It's one and the same. And it is what it is.”
And what she might tell you is that she is an athlete, someone who feels so at home on the court and so at ease next to her teammates.
COVID-19 has robbed her and many of us of that sanctuary of familiarity. But normalcy will arrive one day, and it’s a thought that brings optimism to Nieves who has learned to plan but realize that in this new world, things can change in an instant. But she’s OK with that now.
Nieves is going to do what she has done all her life, dominate no matter how the ball bounces.