Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Keith Gabel won a bronze medal in snowboardcross at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 and had the pleasure of being part of an American sweep in the sport’s debut at the Games.
“To be part of a clean sweep, what an honor,” said Gabel at the time, after standing with friends and teammates Evan Strong (gold) and Mike Shea (silver) for the medal ceremony in the SB-LL2 classification. “A serendipitous moment would be a good way to sum it up.”
Now Gabel, 33, is eager to get back to the Games and earn a medal of a different kind. In 2016 he told a reporter his eyes already were locked in on the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea.
“I am always looking to get gold,” he said. “There’s no way around it. That’s my goal and that’s what I am aiming for.”
To get there, Gabel believes he not only has to be the best he can be on the slopes, but in his mind.
With the PyeongChang Games fast approaching in March, Gabel says he’s been focused on improving his mental strength.
“Mental strength is one of the many tools in your tool box as an athlete,” he told TeamUSA.org. “Like the other tools, if you don’t constantly sharpen it, it can become dull and you won’t be able to use it to your advantage or at full capacity.”
Gabel says he’s already seen “major changes” in his performance since doing work to strengthen his mental approach.
Gabel currently ranks third in the world in his classification in the World Para Snowboard rankings, just behind Strong (at No. 3) and a Finnish and a Japanese boarder.
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Gabel, who now lives and trains in Aspen, Colorado, after growing up in Ogden, Utah, has been riding since 2000. Five years later, his left foot was crushed in an industrial accident, causing its eventual amputation. He began competing in para snowboarding in 2010-11 and made the Paralympic team for Sochi. A year after those Games, he won X Games.
He said mental strength before and during a competition hasn’t necessarily been a weakness, but “over time it is something that I have noticed I could work on,” he said. “I do know it hasn’t been my strength.”
Working out at the gym and then meditating has been one of the keys to improving his mental performance, he said, and something he adopted after he stepped away from the sport for a while.
“At one point in my career I was really burned out and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with this journey,” Gabel said. “At that point, my mentor suggested I take some time off to reconnect with myself, and so that’s what I did. From then on, I’ve been on an inward journey to truly connect with myself and be the best version of myself possible.”
Certainly, Gabel already has shown mental strength his entire life and career. He overcame a troubled childhood — including homelessness and watching his stepfather commit suicide — yet always has maintained a positive attitude.
“I came from a dark place but I have a bright future,” he once said.
Now, he’s just trying to make it even brighter.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.