Keith Gabel competes during the men's snowboard cross SB-LL2 qualification during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 06, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
The United States has been a powerhouse in Paralympic snowboarding since the sport debuted at that level in 2014. However, in the intervening years, other countries have created robust programs and now challenge for the top of the podium.
The improvement and growth of the sport is incredible, said Mike Jennings, who coaches the U.S. Para snowboard team. But, it does change the mindset his athletes need to have heading into the season.
“We definitely hold ourselves to a very high standard,” he said. “Other teams have been improving over the last couple of quads, which has had the effect of lighting a bit of a fire under us.
“I see a hunger in a lot of the veteran athletes to really try to put their best foot forward.”
In order to meet its own expectations, the team has spent the offseason focusing on conditioning, strength training, and fundamentals because once the season starts, there are limited opportunities to focus on anything but the races. In season, the focus switches to strategy for individual courses and trying to break down what is the best movement pattern to utilize in any particular course.
Three of the veteran men that decided to return to the team this season – Keith Gabel, Mike Schultz and Evan Strong – have demonstrated a solid commitment to perform at a higher level than they have in the past, said Jennings.
“The trajectory that I’m seeing all of them moving towards tells me that they’re going to perform at their peak,” he said. “I think they’re all still improving and not only in their technique but also in their approach of preparation.
“So, they’re not only making the right moves but at the right times (and) doing it with a force and power that maybe they didn’t have in the past.”
There’s a focus on each individual movement and how those movements follow each other so that they happen almost without hesitation in the heat of a race. For most of the athletes on the national team, these are refreshers to reestablish a baseline of the correct refined movement. In their development, coaches can help the snowboarders improve their decision making and reaction time. But there is simply no substitute for experience. Ultimately, the athlete must be able to assess a situation, and make the best possible decision in altering their plan each time something another boarder does affects their path.