|Keith Gabel poses with his X Games gold medal in Aspen, Colo., on Jan. 23, 2015.|
ASPEN, Colo. -- Five years ago Keith Gabel didn’t even know adaptive snowboarding existed.
“It was very small,” the 2014 Paralympic bronze medalist said. “If you Googled ‘Paralympic snowboarding’ you wouldn’t find anything.”
But all that has changed thanks to the sport’s inclusion in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, as well as ESPN’s decision to include Snowboarder X Adaptive as a medal event for the first time at the Winter X Games this year.
“Getting the word out is half the battle,” Gabel said.
The other battle that went down took place on the course. On Friday, three members of Team USA were among the invited X Games athletes competing when the sport made its TV debut: Mike Shea (who earned a silver medal in Sochi), Gabel and Mike Schultz.
In the semifinals, Schultz — who was scheduled to also compete on Sunday in Snowmobile Snocross Adaptive — crashed entering a jump and had to be taken to the hospital. He suffered multiple right heel fractures and will eventually require surgery.
Timing couldn’t have been worse for Schultz. Just last month he was named to the U.S. Paralympics national team and this month earned two world cup wins. In a statement to ESPN, the multi-sport athlete said, “This is not the way I wanted to start X Games, and I do have a long recovery ahead of me. If it was my prosthetic leg, I could have switched parts and been in good shape!”
With only Shea and Gabel left in the finals, Gabel led the six-man pack from the start and ended with the gold medal. Shea placed fifth but said, “Just to be here competing with my best friends, the guys I race with all the time, means the world.”
Behind the scenes, the one who had been pushing for the sport to be included from the beginning was Daniel Gale, cofounder of Adaptive Action Sports.
“Any time we can do something like this, where we’re in a mainstream venue and we can put ourselves alongside another event, it’s great,” Gale said. “It’s great for the Paralympic Movement. It’s great for potential athletes who want to participate in the sport, and hopefully it will grow the sport.”
In 2011 and 2012, Gale organized an exhibition demo at the Winter X Games in the hopes of garnering enough interest to get it among the medal events. One of the reasons he thinks it finally happened this year was due in part to the Sochi Games.
“ESPN was extremely open to hosting the event,” he said. “I think in an effort to sway Russia to include it in Sochi. I don’t know if that ultimately had anything to do with the decision. If it did, great.”
Shea agreed saying, “NBC covering the Paralympic Games did just tremendous things for our sport. It’s reaching a lot of people because of that.”
Another big backer was 2014 Paralympic bronze medalist and “Dancing with the Stars” runner-up Amy Purdy. Gale and Purdy started the non-profit Adaptive Action Sports back in 2005 after meeting and discovering their mutual love for snowboarding.
Purdy — who was in attendance for the inaugural event helping commentate from the announcer’s booth — said she couldn’t have been more proud that it was finally a medal event.
“It just gives more respect to our sport and what we do,” Purdy said. “It’s a Paralympic event. We’ve got top-notch athletes who should be recognized for their hard work.”