U.S. Paralympics

U.S. Paralympics

Jan 15 Keith Gabel controls destiny as top snowboarder

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Jan. 15, 2014, 4 p.m. (ET)
Keith Gabel
Keith Gabel is ranked No. 1 in the world in men's standing snowboard cross.

Gabel pays it forward

In September, Keith Gabel was named one of 12 Olympic and Paralympic athlete ambassadors for the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow outreach program for 2013-14.

Team for Tomorrow is a humanitarian program that provides a vehicle through which U.S. athletes can offer their assistance and support to those in need around the world, as well as a means to continue spreading the Olympic Values of excellence, friendship and respect. 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.

“Pay it forward,” Gabel said. “You see it more often than not that people take what they have for granted. At the end of the day, everyone has something that should make them feel fortunate. They should pay it forward.”

Gabel recently visited YMCA Taylorsville, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, as a part of the program.

U.S. Paralympics snowboarder Keith Gabel was supposed to be an alpine skier.

From a young age, the sport was his passion.

But 14 years ago, a friend said three words to 16-year-old Gabel that would change his life forever: “Do you snowboard?”

He did not. But after saving two paychecks from his job as a rehabilitative trainer for disabled adults at a group home, he started. And he never looked back.

“It seemed a little more chill than skiing so I thought I’d give it a try and see what happened,” said Gabel, who took to the snow after he moved from Oregon to Utah as a teenager.

What happened is he became a medal contender for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, almost nine years after losing his left leg below the knee to an industrial accident. He's a favorite for gold.

Gabel, 29, is the No. 1 ranked athlete in men's standing snowboard cross the world heading into the second world cup race of the season, Jan. 17-20 at Copper Mountain, Colo., sharing the No. 1 spot with teammate Evan Strong and New Zealand's Carl Murphy. Fourth belongs to American Mike Shea, a close friend who Gabel trains with at Winter Park, Colo.

“I live the way I live to be the No. 1 ranked snowboarder in the world,” Gabel said. “My ranking is a reflection of how hard I train, how hard I work. I don’t want to go down as someone who had potential to be the best but never made it. I want to be the best.”

He is close – so close that he can already see it.

“I visualize Sochi every night before bed,” said Gabel. “I see myself standing at the top of the podium come March. Everything I do today, everything I do tomorrow, it is all building up to that moment in Sochi when I can show that I am the best snowboarder in the world.”

The competition will be the biggest stage para-snowboarders have ever seen. But for Gabel, the Paralympic Winter Games, March 7-16, will be “business as usual”.

“I train the way that I want to compete,” Gabel said. “The Paralympics are the Paralympics, bigger than a world cup race, but it is not the end all, be all. I am training for Sochi the same way that I am training for the world cup. I’m not letting the Paralympics bring me to a different place because what I am doing now for Copper is what I need to do for Sochi. I have to trust in my training whenever I’m at the top of a course.”

Gabel opened up the season with a second place finish to Shea at the world cup in Landgraaf, Netherlands. “I was really relaxed for that race to be honest,” he said.

At the starting gate, he turned his brain off. And down he went on an indoor course designed specifically for para-snowboarders, letting his body take over.

“When I turn my mind off is when instincts take over and when I'm lighthearted, I'm light on my feet,” he said. “When instincts take over everything just flows better. When I think too much is when I become very aggressive on a course and that's not always a good thing.”

Gabel is in control.

Finally.

Growing up in Oregon after his parents divorced, Gabel had a wild ride with his mother.

“She was out of control sometimes,” he said. “She did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, whether or not it was good for me and my brothers and sisters.”

Gabel lived with his two older sisters and younger brothers, although it was more like surviving than living.

“There were a lot of times when we went without electricity, there were times when we went without hot water,” he said. “Sometimes we never even had a place to live. We were homeless a lot, going from shelter to shelter, or anywhere that we could go.”

Sometimes it was up to the kids to find a place, as their mother struggled with addiction and depression.

When Gabel was 12 years old, his mother “pretty much lost it” after a terrible tragedy unfolded in her bedroom with her boyfriend on Christmas Eve .

“Maybe around 4 a.m., I woke up to them fighting because my bed was just down the hall from them,” Gabel said. “I just laid there listening to them, thinking ‘Nothing new here’ because they were always arguing. Then I heard my mom say, ‘Dan, put the gun down.’”

Gabel made it to the doorway of that bedroom “just in time to see him pull the trigger.” 

Dan put the gun to his forehead with Gabel’s baby brother in a nearby crib.

“At that very moment, I thought I would see their window shatter that was behind him, thinking that he had just moved out of the way,” Gabel said. But he hadn’t.

Gabel looked around the room, witnessing the after effects of the suicide. “That’s when it donned on me what had happened,” he said.

An already unstable household soon became worse.

“My mom went off the deep end,” Gabel said. “She would wander the streets at night, even though we lived in a place where you shouldn’t go out after dark. It was dangerous. I was worried for her safety so I followed her. Sometimes she’d let me walk alongside her and we would just walk for hours.”

Just a teenager, Gabel would come home with his mom around 4 a.m. Then he would be on the school bus by 7.

“It became too stressful for me,” Gabel said. He picked up the phone and told his dad he was coming to Utah to live with him. He got off the airplane and went immediately to the slopes of Park City, Utah, where his dad and step family were vacationing.

“I never really looked back,” said Gabel, who has spoken to his mom only a few times after leaving Oregon. “If I had stayed there with her in that environment, I’d probably be dead.”

Now he is living to be a Paralympic champion.

“Even when I was surrounded by darkness, I always felt I was destined for something great,” said Gabel, who relocated to Winter Park from Utah just before the 2013-14 season. “I never knew what it was until now.”

The first-ever U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding Team will be named in early February.

The Paralympic Winter Games are March 7-16, in Sochi, Russia, with the men’s and women’s snowboard cross scheduled for March 14.

NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to air 50 hours of television coverage for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, starting on March 7 with the Opening Ceremony. It will be followed by daily coverage of all five Paralympic sports in the Sochi program, before the Games’ Closing Ceremony is broadcast on March 16.

In addition to the unprecedented U.S. television coverage, the USOC will provide live online coverage of both the Sochi and Rio Paralympic Games at TeamUSA.org

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