Snowboarding reaches the pinnacle of Paralympic sport

By Jonathan Gomez | Jan. 15, 2013, 10 a.m. (ET)
Evan Strong
When para-snowboarding debuts at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, Evan Strong hopes to be on Team USA.

When the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games open in Sochi, Russia, it will mark the first time in history that para-snowboarding will be included in the Paralympic programme.

For Keith Gabel and Mike Shea, it is a reality they are still trying to grasp. While they are now ranked second and third in the world in para-snowboarding, both Gabel and Shea remember a time when nobody, not even themselves, knew about the sport.

A board sport enthusiast, Shea grew up spending his days on a board, be that a snowboard, skateboard or even a wake board. But, when he suffered an injury during a wake board session in 2002, he wondered if he would have to live a life without boarding.

"There were options to run, swim, and bike, but board sports were all I knew," said Shea, who now coaches at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., while competing internationally. "I couldn't let it go."

While nobody — not family, friends or even doctors — could tell him whether he could snowboard or not, nobody said he couldn't either. With no knowledge of any physical disability board sport program out there, Shea decided to teach himself.

It is a story Gabel knows all too well.

After losing his leg in an industrial accident in 2005, he wasn’t looking for sympathy; he was looking for a way back on the mountain.

“It was my passion,” Gabel said. “I could still walk and run, why couldn’t I board?”

Nobody had that answer for him.

“There was just no such thing (as para-snowboard) back then.”

Or so he thought.

While Gabel was teaching himself how to snowboard with a prosthetic, an organization in California was founded to create action sport opportunities for people with physical disabilities.

Now recognized as one of the top adaptive snowboard organizations in the United States, Adaptive Action Sports (AAS) was created by Sochi 2014 hopeful Amy Purdy who, like Shea and Gabel, was not going to let using prosthetics stop her from getting back on a snowboard.

Three years after its founding, AAS partnered with the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA) to host the first para-snowboard world championships.

Slowly, more development programs grew.

Now there are major training centers at the AAS in Winter Park, Colo., the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah,  and the Tahoe Adaptive Competition Center in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Sochi 2014 hopefuls Evan Strong, Shea and Gabel, who hold the sport's Top 3 world rankings, each come from the training programs.

In 2011, the ESPN X Games included para-snowboard in its competition and shortly thereafter, celebrities such as David Beckham were spotted watching the para-skateboarding competition during the Summer X Games. Board sports seemed to be on the fast track to success.

With the help of the World Snowboard Federation (WSF) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), a proposal was sent to the Organizing Committee of the XXII Olympic Winter Games and XI Paralympic Winter Games of 2014 in Sochi (SOOC) asking the organization to include para-snowboarding in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

“We thought it had a good chance,” Gabel said. “Several of us had actually been competing with able-bodied guys in competition.”

On August 17, 2011, Shea and Gabel had just finished a competition in New Zealand when the SOOC, on hand to deliver the competition medals, announced their decision to reject the proposal to include standing men’s and women’s para-snowboard in the Games.

“It was devastating,” Shea said. “I invested everything I had into moving from California to Winter Park to train full-time.”

Gable added, “We didn’t even know why, it was just a cold, hard 'no'."

Whatever the reason was, it was short-lived. On May 2, 2012, SOOC announced that para-snowboarding would in fact be contested at the Paralympic Winter Games, March 7-16, 2014, as a discipline of alpine skiing.

“It was like the ball dropped,” Gabel said.

With the sport now at the highest level, the IPC is finding ways to further develop the sport and world class athletes. The 2013 season will serve as a way for potential riders to gain points to qualify for Sochi.

To align with the IPC's vision for para-snowboarding, U.S. Paralympics, the National Governing Body for the sport of para-snowboarding in the United States, recently hired Miah Wheeler to help lead the United States' efforts, including the creation of a U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team. 

Self-labeled a "snowboard coordinator", one of Wheeler's largest tasks was helping develop qualifying standards for making the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team and competing at high level events.

“In the past, if you wanted to go to a national championship, all you had to do was ask,” Wheeler said. “To me, that’s not really a national championship.”

To help the competitiveness of the sport, Wheeler has helped implement high performance standards.

He also helped create qualifying standards for making the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team for the 2013-14 season, which will be the inaugural run of the National Team program.

Consisting of up to nine men and six women, the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team will be split into two tiers: A and B. The A team will have fully funded training so long as an athlete is Top 5 in the world. The B team will be partially funded so long as the athlete is Top 5 in the U.S.

Wheeler is aware of the possibility that these qualifying standards may be difficult to uphold. Should there not be anyone ranked Top 5 in the world, qualifying standards may shuffle. He just hopes they don't have to.

“There are people hungry enough to make those standards, no question," Wheeler said. "We want athletes who want to make Team USA.”

Wheeler understands that the best way for athletes to reach Team USA is through their respective development programs. In his new role with U.S. Paralympics, Wheeler acts as someone each program can report to, something both Shea and Gabel find necessary.

“In the past, there's been some friction between the developmental programs, but Miah gives everyone the big picture that these programs are all part of developing the U.S. National Team,” Shea said.

The development programs serve as a pipeline to Team USA.

“It should be an honor to lose your athlete to the U.S. National Team,” Wheeler said.

The reality that they can openly discuss development programs, the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team and even the Paralympic Winter Games shows how far the sport has come.

“I'm happy to be a part of such an awesome movement and I hope that the future continues to grow,” Shea said. “Not only for me, but for the soldier who hasn’t yet lost his leg, for the driver that will soon be paralyzed in a car accident, and for the unborn child with cerebral palsy. All of those people can now have the same dream of one day becoming a Paralympic snowboarder.”

Gabel is also looking forward to the future.

“The road is tough; it can be an expensive road, it can be a stressful road, but you can never give up," he said. "That’s what the Paralympics is all about. You’re not out there just to prove who’s the top dog, you’re out there to inspire the world. You have a dream, you have a goal, use your drive to make it happen."