Evan Strong became the first men's snowboard cross champion at the Paralympic Winter Games on March 14, beating teammates Mike Shea and Keith Gabel.
Mike Shea, Evan Strong and Keith Gabel celebrate during the flower ceremony on March 14.
KASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The much anticipated debut of snowboarding at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games did not disappoint the crowd at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Skiing Center Friday. The U.S. men swept the snowboard cross event with Evan Strong (Maui, Hawaii), Mike Shea (Castaic, Calif.) and Keith Gabel (Ogden, Utah), taking the top three spots, respectively. The triple win marks the first American sweep in a Paralympic Winter Games in 12 years and the first men’s medal sweep in U.S. history.
“Today is a dream," Strong said. "I’m so ecstatic, I’m over the moon, I don’t even feel like my feet are on the ground right now. This course is super fun, you can generate a lot of speed, but it is super challenging. To be able to pull this [sweep] off is just a testimony to the United States’ training, to our coaches and what we’ve’ been working on all year long. The U.S. snowboard team, we’re all best friends, we all encourage each other and we want everybody to go faster. We are in love with our sport. This sport gave us life back after our accidents, so what we are doing is celebrating life through snowboarding, and to be able to share it with the world through the Paralympics, that is just the icing on top.”
The dominant American men's team held the top of the leader board through all three runs with a battle for the top spot between Strong and Shea throughout the morning. Run 1 featured Shea in the top spot with a time of 52.29 and Strong just behind in 52.55. Strong’s second run was the fastest run of the day for any competitor at 51.62 and was enough to bring him into the top spot edging out Shea by just one-hundredth of a second.
“These guys are my best friends outside of competition, so standing next to them on the podium means a lot to me," Shea said. "We’ve talked about this for a long time, and to actually have it happening now, I’m pretty speechless. You have no idea how hard we’ve all worked to get here. It’s been a long road, close to a decade for some people, so to be here at the top of this course, we’re all happy for each other regardless of the outcome.”
Strong finished with a combined 1:43.61 to take gold, Shea took silver in 1:44.18 and Gabel’s final combined time of 1:47.10 left more than two seconds between the Americans and the fourth place finisher, Carl Murphy of New Zealand.
“It is a true honor [to be a part of the sweep]," Gabel said. "I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates or myself. It’s been a long time coming. You know a lot of us had to switch gears; a couple years ago we were all training for Korea [in 2018], then when we got the call that our sport was going to be in Sochi, we were like ‘alright, bring it on.’ Everybody, not just my team, did a really good job and kind of turned up the heat when they had to. To be a part of a clean sweep, man what an honor, what an honor. It is a serendipitous moment, standing up there and hearing the roar. It’s a surreal moment for me.”
Retired Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Tyler Burdick (Salt Lake City, Utah) finished in eight with a 1:52.49 and U.S. teammate Daniel Monzo (Glenwood, N.J.) finished in 18th with a time of 2:07.52.
“It is amazing to be a part of this team to take the first gold at these games, and it is an honor," Gabel said. "My runs were good. I definitely learned a thing or two and know what I need to work on for the future. I’m really happy with my results today, and I’ve got a lot to strive for too.”
On the women’s side, American Amy Purdy (Las Vegas, Nev.) held the third position throughout the competition capturing the bronze with a combined time of 2:14.29. Bibian Mentel-Spee of the Netherlands took gold and France’s Cecile Hernandez-Cervellon the silver.
“I just love snowboarding, it is something I have always been passionate about, and to be able to share it with other athletes and to share our sport with the world is really exciting," Purdy said. "It’s all about having fun, and that is what today is all about. I had a pretty challenging time, it was more challenging than I was expecting with the conditions this morning being choppy and icy and fast, and that makes it a little harder for me to absorb with my legs, so I started out super conservative this morning, then I was able to open it up."
American Cristina Albert (Denver, Colo.) finished just off the podium in fourth with a 2.35.26. After being unable to complete her second run, Heidi Jo Duce (Ouray, Colo.) had a solid third run finishing with 2:37.43 to round out the top five. Nicole Roundy (Salt Lake City, Utah) finished in eighth overall with a 2:59.57 and Megan Harmon (Huntsville, Ala.) finished in10th with a time of 3:31.09.
“I thought it was going really well," Albert said. "I was taking a lot of pride in the fact that I was the first ever Paralympian to go down the course being bib number one. I started out on a really good note and had a really nice clean run. On two I was nuking it and then made that big mistake, but I exceeded my own expectations at the end of the day, so I’m stoked.”
The U.S. came into the inaugural snowboard cross event at the Paralympic Winter Games with a full-team of five men and five women competing in the lower limb impairment snowboard cross competition, an event featuring athletes that race one-at-a-time down the course. Each athlete completes three runs with the combined time of their best two runs determining the winner.