Since winning gold at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team has dominated the international scene and is ranked No. 1 in the world. As they attempt to defend their Paralympic title, the U.S. will bring nine returning team members to Tokyo.
Among the returnees is Nicky Nieves, a 31-year-old middle blocker who will be competing at her second Paralympic Games.
Get to know more about Nieves below.
Finding Sitting Volleyball
Nieves, who was born without a left hand, participated in several sports — including cheerleading, track and volleyball — while growing up and then played Division II volleyball at Queens College. During that time, the U.S. sitting volleyball coach discovered Nieves and reached out to her through the school’s athletic director. (Although athletes must remain seated during games, being unable to stand is not a requirement for playing sitting volleyball.)
Adaptive sports had never been on her radar before, but Nieves decided to give sitting volleyball a try in 2011. She said she was "taken aback" at first because of how different it was from traditional volleyball, but she soon found that the camps gave her a sense of comfort, and she saw a huge opportunity in front of her. After attending her third camp, Nieves decided to dedicate herself to the sport. It took her some time to really adjust to the seated game, but she's said that she's learned a lot about volleyball and has even become a better standing player because of it.
Nieves was part of the 2016 team that won the United States' first-ever Paralympic gold medal in women's sitting volleyball. She also holds a gold medal from the 2019 Parapan American Games, as well as a pair of silver medals from the 2014 and 2018 World Championships.
The greatest influence in Nieves' life has been her parents, both of whom are originally from Puerto Rico.
"My parents encouraged me to always pursue whichever sport I liked the most, and when they saw that I had a possible career in volleyball, they pushed me to be the very best I could be," she said. "They have always been there to support me financially, emotionally, and in whichever way I asked of them."
In fact, according to Nieves, learning how to be away from her family for long periods of time has been one of the biggest challenges she's had to overcome in her athletic career.
Living with anemia
Since 2017, Nieves has been anemic. During a routine blood test at the Paralympic training center, it was discovered that her low energy levels were caused by low levels of iron in her system. She started taking iron supplements, which triggered some unpleasant stomach issues for her, but over the next few years, her iron levels remained low.
Acting on a suggestion from her mother, who also has a history of low iron, Nieves ended up getting a blood transfusion last year. She also made some changes to her diet and supplements that have helped her.
Nieves described what it was like living with anemia in a 2020 blog post: "At my best I feel that I can conquer the world. At my worst, I feel like I'm so tired and low in energy I could cry."
Nieves founded a nonprofit, Limitless People Inc., with a goal of bringing volleyball — both standing and sitting — to everyone regardless of money, race, gender, or physical ability. The organization has hosted clinics in Florida (Nieves’ home states) and the Dominican Republic. Nieves has also spent summers working as a volleyball coach at a camp, NubAbility Athletics, that teaches sports to kids with limb differences.
On the Limitless website, Nieves wrote about the joy that this work gives her: "If I can impact just one life, give at least one individual a good time, a little confidence in the sport and in self, and a memory to last a lifetime, I know I am fulfilling my purpose."
NBC Olympics Research contributed to this story.