Nicky Nieves: 'Mental health and sport go hand in hand'

Sitting volleyball player Nicky Nieves poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Sitting volleyball player Nicky Nieves poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Sitting volleyball player from Team USA reflects on her mental health journey, being a role model for the youth and how she intends to defend their title in Tokyo 2020

When Nicky Nieves looks back at her Paralympic Games debut at Rio 2016, she knows it was a hard-earned victory for Team USA.

"Its been eight years chasing this goal and it was finally here," Nieves shared on an Instagram Live interview by the International Paralympic Committee to mark the one year to go to the Paralympic Games.

"China was the giant that they've been chasing and I came on the team when we were still chasing it."

When Team USA finally won their first-ever gold medal in sitting volleyball against their toughest rival, a slew of emotions came for Nieves.

"It just felt like a joy and relief - and relief because you know that all your hard work was not in vain," she said.

For Nieves, mental preparation was a big factor in their win in Rio 2016.

"Seeing all our hard work pay off, all the sacrifices that my team put in to get where we were, even working with mental health and working with sports psychologists."

According to Nieves, part of their mental training before the Games was working on themselves individually to be able to give each other full support.

"At the end of the day we all have one common goal - how can I best support you and vice versa."

"What is it that you need from me so you feel best supported? What do I put out to my team to best feel supported in general and kind of working on yourself so it's really looking in the mirror and seeing what hinders you from being your best self and working on that mentally."

Being a role model

When the postponement happened, Nieves herself went through a time of depression. The reality of the pandemic hit home with her training halted and also having some of her relatives been directly impacted by COVID-19.

"It's feels like a whirlwind and I feel there's light at the end of the tunnel but what I learned with this pandemic is don't plan too far ahead."

Being vocal about her mental issues however has helped her process the emotions she has been feeling and is now fully regaining control.

"I feel like now that I've gone through my athletic career and I recognise the signs that are going to put me in a depression. It was easier to understand what was happening, and to have more compassion for myself and utilise the tools that I have been taught with our sports [psychologist]."

"Mental health and sport go hand in hand."

Nieves, who was born without her left hand, is currently working with young people with impairments to help them find ways to deal with their disabilities.

For the 30-year-old athlete, it was important to be a role model for the youth.

"I literally want to be the person that I wished I had when I was small."

"It's important to have a community of people that are like you that understands you and know your struggle or either going to that struggle with you - figuring it out together or have gone through it and who can give you things that have helped them overcome it."

"It’s okay to be different, it's okay not to have a hand, it's okay to perform your skill differently and find out how to do it and for people to look at you because they do think you are inspirational."

Proud of her roots

Aside from being a role model, Nieves also knows the significance of being an athlete with Afro-Latina roots.

"Being a Afro-Latina is knowing, recognising and speaking on the fact that I am a black Puerto Rican."

"Both of my parents are Puerto Rican - and for me it is huge because representation matters."

"It matters being a different individual, it matters playing an Olympic sport, and now it matters to me even more because I am the person that another Afro Latina is going to see that thinks that they might not be able to achieve where I am at because of their skin colour because of their ethnicity because of something as simple as hair."

Nieves is the first person in her family to win a Paralympic gold medal.

"I come from a family of athletes and I am the first one in my family that got to go in the Games - the first one in my family that got a medal, the first one I've seen to be an Afro Latina to bring home a medal."

"It's so many things jam packed in one," she proudly said.

Tokyo 2020

Currently, the team are still unable to train together physically due to COVID-19 restrictions in the United States, but Nieves and her teammates continue to have the same support system to help each other deal with the postponement of the Paralympic Games.

"Where do we go next - and assessing [that] together as a team and realising that [the Games] wasn't going to happen [this year] and allowing everyone to deal with it the best way they know how."

"Some people need to talk it out with other teammates, some people talk to a [pyschologist], some people are just literally processing [by themselves].

"We're building what normalcy is supposed to look like."

Nieves herself is training in her garage and adapting her training regimen to stay in tip top shape as she continues her preparations for Tokyo 2020.

"I'm taking care of my nutrition, working out, staying hydrated, [getting my] supplements so that when we do get back together just a little bit out of time we've all done our part to put our best foot forward."

Ultimately, Nieves is trying to stay optimistic.

"I truly understand just how lucky and blessed I am to be on Team USA."

"Knowing right now and just being grateful and being present in the moment, that even though this is a sucky time for everybody right now, I am still able to go and get some training at the gym, I am still able to get some touches on a volleyball. I am still able to communicate with my teammates and figuring things out when stuff gets thrown my way."

"I still have that optimism to get back to my team. [I'm] just sitting back and appreciative of everything that's going on."