Southern Olympians to Watch: Volleyballer Nicky Nieves is Ready to Win Gold Again at Tokyo Paralympic Games
With the Tokyo Paralympic Games only a month away, the USA Volleyball Women's Sitting National Team, including middle blocker Nicky Nieves, is gearing up to defend their title after winning gold in the 2016 Rio games against China.
While Nieves has been a Team USA member since 2011, she didn't always play adaptive volleyball for parathletes. In fact, she played and excelled at traditional, standing volleyball throughout her childhood and in college. The adaptive version involves sitting and moving around on the floor and using a net lower on the court. She didn't want her disability to hold her back and wanted to be treated the same as other athletes.
"I'm more than just the volleyball player with one hand. I wanted to be looked at for my athletic accolades rather than just being a girl about my hand," Nieves told Southern Living.
Because Nieves was successful and accustomed to playing the traditional way, it took some convincing from her parents to join Team USA. She quickly learned that playing adaptive volleyball would elevate her game to a whole new level. "It literally opened my eyes to how much bigger the world was outside of just my mind."
Nieves wants people to realize and recognize that adaptive sports are just as challenging, demanding, and competitive as other sports. "A lot of people think it's just easier, and it's not. A lot of times, I feel like I've become a better standing volleyball player because of the sitting game. It's harder on my body. I have to be more strategic and defined in my things. It makes my brain go faster than standing does."
Nieves wants to open the eyes of the next generation of adaptive players to the world of sitting volleyball. She hosts free clinics and helps students attend various volleyball camps with professional coaches in her home state of Florida and around the world. Her dream is to help disabled student athletes realize that their handicap doesn't have to hold them back from playing on the same level as traditional athletes.
"Now that I'm older, I wish I had someone like me when I was growing up now. If I can talk to a kid or anybody who's curious or looks up to me, l'm always going to do it because I know how influential adaptive athletes would have been had I had that person growing up to look up to."
Maybe one day then, Nieves will be the one recruiting young college parathletes and convincing them that they too can conquer the traditional and adaptive worlds of professional volleyball.
"It's honestly just pushed me outside of my bubble to be like more confident and to just be myself, especially getting to play in both worlds, both like adaptive and traditional volleyball. In a sense, I found my purpose in life because I understand that other people are looking at me; and they're probably thinking, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"