(L-R) Mike Shea, Evan Strong and Keith Gabel made history at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 when they earned the first-ever U.S. men's podium sweep in snowboard-cross in the sport's debut in Russia. The trio will look to repeat their Paralympic success in PyeongChang this March.
Four years ago, the “Three Amigos” from Team USA swept the podium in snowboarding’s debut at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
Evan Strong, an introverted hipster, won gold.
Mike Shea, a reserved and tactical philosopher, snatched silver.
Keith Gabel, a social butterfly who’s always making people laugh, took bronze.
Now, it’s time for Act II: PyeongChang 2018.
All three snowboarders are serious medal contenders in PyeongChang, where men’s snowboarding will be split into three classifications and feature two disciplines. The trio will compete in the LL2 class for athletes with the least severe impairments in one or two legs, and they will race in both the banked slalom and snowboard-cross events. Snowboard-cross will have athletes race on a course with terrain features in timed individual qualification runs followed by two competitors per heat in the final. Banked slalom is new to the Games.
The snowboard-cross event will take place on March 12, followed by the banked slalom event March 16.
But, with snowboarding having its second go-around at the Games, the odds of a Team USA sweep are now much more difficult.
“With the growth of the sport and ability of the athletes who we’re competing against, as for a sweep, I don’t think the odds are necessarily in our favor,” Gabel admitted. “Everything has to line up perfectly for us. These days, if you make top 10, you had a decent day. If you make top five, you had a good day. If you make the podium, you had a great day. And if you win, you had a perfect day.”
Shea’s had the most success thus far this season with three world cup podium appearances, including two gold and a silver; Strong’s accumulated two silver, and Gabel has yet to reach the world cup podium. The trio did, however, sweep the Dew Tour podium in December in Breckenridge, Colorado, where they finished in the same order they did in Sochi.
Shea, whose leg was amputated after a wakeboarding accident in 2002, has been passionate about snowboarding his entire life. The technically-advanced rider battled a rough season last year, but still managed to pull off a bronze-medal snowboard-cross finish at world championships.
Strong, who grew up in Hawaii and found snowboarding in Lake Tahoe after losing his left leg in a motorcycle accident at 17, looks to his daughter, Indie, as his daily dose of inspiration. Now firmly grounded in his personal life, his wife and daughter give him perspective after long months of traveling and training. He had a great 2016-17 season that included the snowboard-cross world cup title and a silver at the world championships.
Gabel, who returned to snowboarding three months after losing his left foot following an industrial accident, proclaims the slopes are his “church.” Having looked up to big mountain free rider Jeremy Jones for years, Gabel’s mustered enough inspiration to make an international career of his own, but has yet to reach the world cup podium this season.
“I haven’t had the results I was hoping for going into the Games, but it’s actually not the worst place to be, as it’s made me a little more hungry,” Gabel said.
The Three Amigos originally teamed up when snowboarding was in its nascent stages at the first sanctioned world cup event and have been a force to be reckoned with ever since, despite their varying range of personalities.
“We are three of the most different people you could possibly meet,” Shea said. “But we’re still close. We’ve had our own paths that we’ve gone on since we’ve gotten older, but we definitely still motivate each other when we’re on the hill. At the end of the day, we’re teammates, and we’re always trying our hardest to push each other to the next level.”
Although they may not be as close as they once were, the Three Amigos definitely share a similar shifting view of their sport.
“When I got into the sport of snowboarding, I did it for myself so that I could rehabilitate and recover from my amputation,” Shea said. “It was something that I wanted to set out and accomplish. Now that I’ve been in it for four years and I’ve won my medals, competed at world cups, and won globes, to be honest, I don’t continue doing it for myself. I continue doing it for the sport and for the people who are in the footsteps behind me.
“To see the growth that’s happened in the last decade — from just a couple of guys having fun at U.S. nationals to now 70 athletes competing at world cups from all different nations — it’s become a much bigger thing than I could have ever imagined. The fact that I had a part in that impact, I just want to leave behind a legacy where other people have the same opportunities as I did when I won that medal in Sochi.”
They’ve come a long way since that first sanctioned world cup.
“We all showed up hoping that we could build something for generations to come, and at the end of the day, that’s now one of the legacies that’s been created,” Gabel said.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.