When Nikki Stone was 5, she watched Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10 in gymnastics at the Olympics. Nikki promptly made a podium out of the furniture in her living room to make the very important announcement that such a win is exactly what she would accomplish. Her mother responded with the wisdom that would carry her daughter through years of training, a devastating spinal injury and on to an Olympic gold medal. She told Nikki she must be like a turtle–soft on the inside, hard on the outside and willing to stick her neck out.
The word picture was one that was easy for this determined young girl to remember. “What child doesn't know what a turtle looks like,” Stone tells SUCCESS. “Mom explained that my soft inside was a passion for what I did, the hard shell represented focus and commitment to my goal, and the willingness to stick my neck out stood for confidence, follow-through and strong teamwork.” Young Nikki went to work immediately to become the best turtle she could be.
The next several years were filled with gymnastic lessons and accomplishments, including awards at the state and regional level. As Stone's knowledge of gymnastics grew, so did her realization that people with certain body types naturally excel at the sport–and hers was not that type.
Meantime, she became intrigued while watching an inverted aerial skiing competition on television. She immediately dismissed the possibility of participating in the sport herself because of her fear of heights. Yet, that same year, 18-year-old Stone challenged herself to do a single back flip into a pool. She joined a diving team to learn. The rest of the team was practicing high dives, complete with back flips. Stone's fear of heights was still very real, but looming even bigger was her ego. “There was no way I was going to stand in front of my coach and other athletes and admit my fear, so I willed myself to jump,” Stone says. The dive was successful, including a double back flip.
Finding Her Passion
Stone couldn't think of anything but inverted aerial skiing from that day forward. Her family had skied often, and although still not fond of heights, Stone knew her ability to ski combined beautifully with her successful high dive into the pool. And she reveled in the prospect of conquering her fears and excelling at the sport.
Little did she know that aerial freestyle skiing would become an Olympic sport and that in five short years she would be competing at the 1994 Winter Games. Although Stone was not successful in her bid for a medal, she put her loss behind her, applied what she learned from it and started to train for the 1998 games. Nearly two years into her training, she ranked second in the world and was working hard toward the No. 1 ranking when she started to experience back pain.
On one particularly painful day, her physical therapist was on site and had to pick her up to help her stand. With five minutes left of practice and one more jump to do, Stone hobbled to the top of the hill in so much pain that tears streamed down her face. Then the unthinkable happened. “I took the jump, and at 30 feet in the air, it suddenly felt as though 10 knives were stabbing me in the lower back,” Stone says. “I fell out of the air and hit the ground with a thud. I couldn't move more than 2 inches in any direction.”
Years of repetitive impact had taken their toll on Stone's back, and two of the discs were seriously injured. “One doctor explained the disc injury as looking like an eggshell that was cracked and fluid was leaking out,” Stone explains. Each of the 10 doctors Stone visited told her she would never ski again.
The months that followed were extremely dark for Stone. “I fell into a deep depression.” she says. “I literally cried every day for six months straight.” Although she tried every kind of therapy possible, Stone still could not sit for more that 30 minutes nor stand for more than 15 minutes. The physical and emotional pain and devastation were overwhelming to her.
At the end of the six months of darkness, a glimmer of light shined into Stone's soul when she came across a poem that had been a gift during some challenging times as a gymnast. The poem, by an unknown author, was titled, You Must Not Quit.
Stone also found inspiration in the story of Joe Frazier, who won an Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1964–with a broken thumb. “If he could win boxing with a broken fist, I could win skiing with an injured back.”
Finding a doctor who would work with her was not easy, but Stone found one who encouraged her to strengthen her back muscles in the hope that they might support the injured discs. He could make no promises. The process was risky because of the fragility of the discs, but Stone was willing to try.
Sticking Her Neck Out
She trained through the pain, never knowing how far would be too far because there was such a delicate balance between strengthening the muscles to protect the damaged discs and causing further injury. Gradually, she began training to compete again, with an eye on the world championship several months away.
“I had to dig deep to build my own confidence,” Stone says. And although she performed poorly during the competition, with members of the media predicting she would never stand on a winner's podium again, Stone was pleased she had gotten so far. “Although it didn't happen overnight, I realized that everything from that point forward was a bonus.” After all, doctors had told her she would never jump again and she was jumping.
With less than a year to train for the next Olympic Games, Stone stuck her neck out and pushed toward her goal. She trained with intensity, consistently improving her strength, agility and confidence.
In 1998, Nikki Stone became the first American to win the Olympic gold medal in aerial freestyle skiing. “Hearing the national anthem while standing on that podium is a feeling that is almost impossible to describe,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by the support of my country, the assistance of all those who had helped me get there, and the desire to give back. I also realized that it was a time of changing direction for me.”
Stone's career achievements also included 35 World Cup podiums, 11 World Cup titles, four national titles and two Overall World Grand Prix titles. Today, she is a ski host and sports psychology consultant to competitive athletes, and has authored her first book, When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How To Stick Their Necks Out
. She shares her story as an inspirational speaker, spreading the message that effort will always bring results as long as you don't give up.