Underdog Keith Gabel working toward upset
Keith Gabel medaled at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Para-Snowboard World Cup Finals in La Molina, Spain, last month.
Keith Gabel knows he is the underdog. Heading into the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, which start Friday in Russia, the snowboarder from Ogden, Utah, is a contender but not the favorite for the first-ever gold medal in Paralympic snowboard cross.
“When no one expects anything from you, that is when you have to expect the most of yourself,” said Gabel, who had his left leg amputated below the knee in 2005 after an industrial accident crushed his foot.
Gabel is ranked third behind U.S. teammates Mike Shea and Evan Strong in the world rankings released last month by International Paralympic Committee, which acts as the federation for Paralympic snowboarding. Shea and Strong share the No. 1 ranking while Gabel, previously top ranked, now shares No. 3 with New Zealand’s Carl Murphy.
“I’m proud to have had the No. 1 ranking this season because it reflects how hard I worked,” Gabel said. “But the rankings don’t always reflect our goals for the future. I want to ride well in every time, and win, but when it comes down to it, I really want to win in Sochi. That’s the ranking that matters to me.”
Gabel started the season with a silver medal at the world cup in Landgraaf, Netherlands, behind Shea, who won four of the seven world cup races this season en route to the first ever overall world cup title. After sitting out the world cups in Copper Mountain, Colo., with a minor ankle injury, Gabel won silver and bronze in Big White, B.C., and two bronze medals at the world cup finals in La Molina, Spain.
“Because the competition is so stiff, it makes me work super hard,” Gabel said. “My teammates are working really hard, which motivates me to be better. I want to go to Sochi knowing that I couldn’t have trained any harder than I did. I want to know that I couldn’t have done anything better.”
The weight room.
And the hill too.
Gabel, in an attempt to become the best snowboarder in the world, has found every place, every way to make himself one-tenth, one-one hundredth of a second faster when he is on the world’s biggest stage. In Sochi, his years of hard work will come down to three runs, less than two minutes each, with his best two combined for his time.
He wants to win.
Shea and Strong want that gold medal too.
“Our competitiveness makes the sport so much better,” Gabel said. “We want to win medals but we want to be athletes performing at our absolute best. I want Mike and Evan to throw down their best races, and I want to have my best race. I know that way, no matter what, I’ll be happy with how it all went down.”
But the top spot of the podium with teammates by his sides would make him happiest.
“I’ve always been the guy who doesn’t accept ‘no’ as an answer,” Gabel said. “I’m the guy who doesn’t accept defeat.”
Gabel grew up in poverty in Oregon with his mother before discovering his passion for snowboarding in Utah while living with his dad.
“When I was in the soup kitchen line, who would have thought ‘I’m serving a 2014 U.S. Paralympian?’ No one,” he said.
But they were – he was named to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding Team last month.
“I want people know that at the end of the day, you put your mind to something and you can achieve it,” Gabel said. “You might not achieve it today, you might not achieve it tomorrow. But through hard work and dedication to that goal, you can achieve it. There is a silver lining in every situation.”
Silver lining but hopefully not a silver medal.
“When it goes down in the books, I want to be the best,” Gabel said.
The snowboarding competition is March 14 on NBCSN and TeamUSA.org.