Keith Gabel celebrates after winning silver in the men's LL2 snowboardcross at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Leading up to his first Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, snowboarder Keith Gabel had one thing on his mind: gold.
It’s a fine – and even a necessary – mindset for an athlete competing at the highest level, Gabel said, but then he noticed something in U.S. alpine skier Jamie Stanton while in Russia.
“He took sixth and he was nothing but grins, ear to ear,” said Gabel, 34. “I wanted to pick his brain a little because most people would be disappointed. I’ve known him for a while and wanted to know what he thought. He was like, ‘Yeah man, my whole goal for this entire thing was to get top 10.’ It dawned on me in Sochi that that’s a great mindset to have. You don’t put that added pressure on yourself, so I switched up my mindset that I should just be stoked to be here.”
Gabel earned a bronze medal in snowboardcross that year, the first that snowboarding was included at the Games, and added a silver in 2018 in PyeongChang. Now he’s hoping to add another piece of hardware to the collection with his first medal in four trips to the World Para Snowboarding Championships. The first major international competition since PyeongChang takes place March 27-31 in Pyha, Finland.
“One thing I’ve never done actually is podium at worlds and I’ve been to a few, so my main goal is to come home with some hardware,” he said. “But at end of day it’s like any other; I just want to have fun and give it everything I’ve got and put my training to work. If I can stay focused and do what I’ve been training to do I could come out with a podium, if not a win.”
Gabel has been snowboarding since he was a teenager. His dad would pay for anything skiing related, Gabel said, but told him if he wanted to snowboard, he was going to have to figure that out for himself. So with the money saved from his first job, Gabel bought his first board and fell instantly in love.
After his foot was crushed in an industrial accident at the age of 20, leading to amputation, Gabel was back on the board within months. Competing was still far from his mind, however, when an adaptive snowboarding certification class introduced him to an instructor who was putting together a team. It was 2010, and Gabel was working as an instructor at Utah’s Snowbasin resort.
“I went and free rode at lunch and while (the instructor) and my coworkers had lunch they told him I was missing part of my leg,” Gabel said. “He didn’t say anything right off the bat but at the end of day he was like, ‘I hear you have one leg. Why aren’t you on my team?’”
Gabel had never competed in snowboarding before and had never raced snowboardcross, but the chance to compete at the first-ever World Snowboard Federation adaptive snowboardcross competition sounded fun.
He showed up on a freestyle board, was one of 17 or 18 athletes from seven or eight countries, he said, and ended up on the podium.
“I was like, ‘That’s a fun feeling,’” he said. “I kind of stuck with it ever since. But I was really fortunate to go to the first-ever sanctioned world cup event and play a little role in it.”
Snowboardcross has since been both Gabel’s favorite and best event, and he goes into this year’s world championships ranked fourth in the world in the LL2 classification. Earlier this season he took a pair of third-place finishes at a world cup stop in Pyha, despite being injured, then got the win and a third-place finish last month in Big White, British Columbia.
He also made strides in banked slalom, which made its Paralympic debut last year. Earlier this month in La Molina, Spain, Gabel got third place in the first banked slalom race of the weekend then followed that up the next day with his first-ever win in the event.
After focusing on skateboarding as part of his summer cross-training to get better in banked slalom, Gabel said a change in approach to banked slalom also helped.
“I ride so much better in general when I’m having fun so over the last year and half probably I’ve had the mindset of, ‘Let’s just go have fun today,’” he said. “That’s something I’ve really tried to put into action. Don’t look at it as a competition you don’t necessarily look forward to, look at it as going to have fun on the mountain. That’s what I did. I was super focused that day, went into it with the right mentality and came out with a win.”
If going into it with a few podiums and wins under his belt doesn’t motivate him, he and his wife, Heather, also just announced that they are expecting their first child this year. He was also just awarded the “Male Paralympian of the Year” Governor’s State of Sport Awards presented by the Utah Sports Commission. What has already been a big year for Gabel only continues to get bigger and better. Making his fourth world championships appearance in Pyha, this may be the best one yet.
“The last time I was here in Finland in November I slipped in the shower and injured myself right before the world cup,” he said. “I went into those two races very injured but podiumed in both. Now I’m much better and back on track and excited for these races. They always put on a really good course for us here and showcase the sport at a very high level. I feel great and I’m ready to throw down."