TAYLORSVILLE, Utah -- Keith Gabel had his audience captivated during his slideshow presentation. Some kids couldn't believe Gabel was the one actually snowboarding down some impossible-looking runs.
After all, Gabel had lost his leg below the knee following an industrial accident eight years ago.
Gabel hopes some of the kids he met with at a YMCA today will be watching him in March competing in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. He met with children in Taylorsville, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, on behalf of the United States Olympic Committee's Team for Tomorrow program.
Through this initiative, U.S. athletes offer assistance and support in the form of donations, volunteerism, disaster-recovery support, advocacy and other contributions to communities. Gabel's visit also included some donated computers to the YMCA on behalf of Team for Tomorrow.
Although the program is designed to give back to the community, Gabel said he got as much out of his visit with the kids as they did from him. One of his favorite parts? The question-and-answer segment.
The kids asked some solid questions, like this one: “How do you shower?"
All Gabel could do was laugh and be thankful about their curiosity. In his experience, adults tend to want to talk about the accident — how he lost his foot in the first place. But it’s the kids who tend to wonder about the bigger picture.
So, Gabel made the group bust up with his answer.
“Yeah, I have to be a ninja in there,” he said. “Stand on one foot.”
|(L-R) Silver medalist Carl Murphy of New Zealand, gold medalist
Evan Strong and bronze medalist Keith Gabel of the U.S. pose after
the para-snowboarding competition at Winter Games NZ on
Aug. 18, 2011 in Wanaka, New Zealand.
You might say Gabel is a ninja in life, able to forge through what many consider impossible circumstances.
The 29-year-old Utah resident, who currently resides in Colorado to train for this season, is a seven-time World Cup medalist who also won a gold medal at the 2012 Winter X Games. He hopes to represent Team USA in Sochi where para-snowboarding will make its debut on the Paralympic program.
In fact, he was participating in the Team for Tomorrow program just days after competing in the first International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup of the season in Landgraaf, Netherlands, where he earned a silver medal.
The U.S. team that will compete in Sochi will be named in early February. The roster will be determined by points accumulated throughout the world cup season; athletes who medal at one or more world cups are likely to make the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team.
Gabel has come a long way in the last several years. In 2005, his foot was crushed beyond repair in an industrial accident. He faced multiple blood transfusions and surgeries and eventually lost a leg below the knee.
But like a ninja is trained to be stealth, Gabel just seems to be wired to be sleek amid obstacles.
He points out being one of five children to a single mother who wasn't exactly the most attentive. It meant, as he put it, “being happy with what you do have,” a lesson lived at an early age through riding a bike, playing with a few toys or navigating through the Oregon woods.
That was, until he turned 12. He had reached his patience threshold at home, called his father back in Utah — who had virtually no visitation rights — and Gabel demanded a plane ticket to come visit.
Gabel's journey took him to Salt Lake. And soon he was off to the relatively close ski slopes as he instantly joined a family vacation. Now he is a world champion with hopes of becoming a Paralympic champion.
“You need positivity and hard work,” Gabel said. “You also can't give up. And, to be honest, you've got to be thankful for any of your accomplishments.”
Gabel spreads that message through a variety of settings. He said he loves speaking to groups, especially children who may have lost (or are about to lose) a limb because of an illness or accident.
“The big messages are determination and direction,” Gabel said. “Don't allow anything to hold you back. Don't allow anything to make you give up. But it takes a healthy style and dedication, too.”
He showed the children a variety of workouts, including stretching and some push-ups. But perhaps just as important, he took them on a “visualization” run through a snowboarding course. He called the slopes “a sanctuary; my church.” But there's also the value of finding positivity through imagination.
“For the most part, we all have our trials and tribulations,” Gabel said. “Find a silver lining in everything.”
He understands that kids may not understand that at first. They see him missing a leg, and wonder how tough that was to recover from — if it can actually be done.
Adults are actually worse about that in general, Gabel said.
“Kids — they're the ones who don't seem to make excuses,” he said. “And they're the ones who seem to enjoy every moment. I think they have a little truer perspective of what life's really worth.”
Gabel said his “rough upbringing” perhaps gave him the mental toolbox to handle the rigors of competition. Even with the challenges he has faced in his life, he is able to adapt and enjoy life: on and off the slopes.
“I'm just a happy guy; I guess I always have been,” Gabel said. “I'd have things where I'd say 'This (stinks),’ but there are also things that don't, and I was going to focus on those.”
His message to the children of Taylorsville was heard loud and clear. And there’s no doubt Gabel heard them as well.