The time is now for U.S. para-snowboard athletes
Mike Shea and Keith Gabel, shown with Evan Strong (right), will join Amy Purdy at the opening event of the 2013-14 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup circuit along with Tyler Burdick and Nicole Roundy (not pictured).
Para-snowboard racers have been working 10 years to get to this season — the first in which their sport will be on the program at the Paralympic Winter Games.
And four of the 11 members of the U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding National Team will take their first stab at clinching a spot in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games when they open their season this week at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup in Landgraff, Netherlands. Team USA can take up to five men and five women to Sochi, and any athlete who medals at a world cup event likely will receive a nomination to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team.
Making it to this point has special meaning to the snowboarders who were instrumental in helping get their sport on the Paralympic program. For Keith Gabel, who at 29 is a seven-time world cup medalist and 2012 Winter X Games gold medalist, the snow has been his salvation for most of his life. He first discovered snow as a 12-year-old trying to escape homelessness and a drug-addicted mother, and then later as a 21-year-old trying to recover from an industrial accident that saw his left foot crushed by 2,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure.
Mike Shea, 30, grew up wakeboarding, water skiing and fishing on Castaic Lake, north of Los Angeles. He lost his left leg there in a wakeboarding accident when he was 19. He was sitting on the rail of the boat when he and his friends hit a wake. He fell off the boat and the ski rope ended up wrapped around his neck, arm and leg. It was still connected to the boom, so Shea knew what was coming. The rope quickly cinched around his lower leg, destroying it.
“I immediately went into shock,” Shea said. “I didn’t know the extent of (the injury) until I saw the water around me for a couple of hundred yards was blood red.”
Amy Purdy finished second at the test event for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, held in March 2013 in Sochi, Russia.
Amy Purdy was also 19 when she lost both of her legs, and almost her life, to meningococcal meningitis. She had a 2 percent chance of survival within the first 24 hours of her first symptoms. As a result, 13 years ago last week she underwent a kidney transplant from her father. Today, she is competing as the only double amputee in the international para-snowboard field.
All three Paralympic hopefuls were able-bodied, recreational snowboarders before losing their limbs. Purdy, from Las Vegas, snowboarded every weekend with her friends. She even entered regional competitions.
“My goal was to travel the world and snowboard and see how far I could take it,” she said.
Each made their way back to snowboarding within months of their amputations. And all give themselves a good chance at this world cup competition, the first time the snowboarders will officially be competing as members of the U.S. Paralympics National Team, which was named in May.
Nicole Roundy, ranked No. 4, and Tyler Burdick, ranked No. 8, are also competing for Team USA in Netherlands.
“The field is strong, but I’ve been putting in the work,” said Gabel, who is ranked third in the world. “When I found out that I made the U.S. national team, the A team especially, it just got real.”
It first became real in May 2012 when it was announced that para-snowboard cross for men and women with lower limb impairments would be included in the Paralympic Winter Games for the first time in Sochi. Athletes have had less than two years to prepare for Sochi but have been preparing their whole lives.
Purdy and her boyfriend, Daniel Gale, who was a contestant with her on the reality show "The Amazing Race", established Adaptive Action Sports in 2005. It was the first adaptive snowboard and skateboard specific nonprofit organization for youth and young adults. Likewise, Shea and Gabel have drawn attention to para-snowboarding through adaptive coaching at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., and the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, respectively.
“When I lost my legs there were zero resources out there for somebody with a disability who wanted to snowboard, or learn to snowboard, or get back into snowboarding,” said the 34-year-old Purdy, a three-time world cup gold medalist and multiple silver medalist. “There were tons of resources for skiing, and it made sense. Skiing was a Paralympic sport at that time, snowboarding wasn’t. It wasn’t really known.”
And now that she is representing her country?
“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Purdy, who is ranked No. 2 in the world. “I couldn’t be prouder. It’s a dream come true. This first world cup will give me a good idea of where my competition’s at and what I need to work on. I’m excited to get this season started. I’ve been training really hard.”
Among Purdy’s biggest competitors is Bibian Mentel, the world’s top-ranked snowboarder of the Netherlands, who is expected to compete at the opening world cup.
“She is who I am chasing,” Purdy said.
Like Purdy, Gabel and Shea have ramped up their training. Shea moved to Colorado a few years ago and Gabel, from Ogden, Utah, moved to Winter Park a few months ago.
“I’ve been working super hard this summer,” said Gabel, whose three-hour daily workouts of spinning, jump roping and doing between 30 and 60 squats on top of a yoga ball have seen him reduce his 210-pound frame to 170 pounds. He’s fired up about the future.
“I’m just honored to be a part of it, to help create something from nothing, to create something for generations to come because that’s what it’s really about,” he said. “Words can’t describe it.”
Gabel started making his mark at an early age. His early years with his mother and four siblings from four different fathers were spent in a rough part of Eugene, Ore. Gabel remembers being poor and living in and out of shelters. He recalls waiting in food lines. But the event that forever changed his life occurred around 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve when Gabel was 12. He heard his mother and stepfather, who had been drinking heavily, arguing. His stepfather had a gun. He put it to his forehead and pulled the trigger with Gabel’s baby brother in a nearby crib.
That was it. He was done. Gabel phoned his dad and said he wanted to live with him and his wife in Utah. Soon afterward, Gabel was on a plane and on the slopes. Skiing would bond father and son, and snowboarding would cement his future.
“Winter sports have been a huge part of my life ever since I moved out here,” Gabel said.
And yet it may be summer sports that are Shea’s future after Sochi. He has aspirations of making the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games in either cycling or track and field.
Carving out new roads isn’t unusual for these pioneers.
“After everything is over in Sochi I'll see if I can go down another path,” Shea said.
Whatever happens, the world will be watching.
NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to air 50 hours of television coverage for March's Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games with all events streamed live at TeamUSA.org.
P.K. Daniel is a freelance sportswriter and editor based in San Diego. Her work has appeared in Baseball America, SB Nation, CBS Sports’ MaxPreps, and the U-T San Diego. She is a freelance contributor to USParalympics.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.