Keith Gabel competes in the Men's Banked Slalom SB-UL Run 3 during day seven of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 16, 2018.
Para snowboarding is one of the easier Para sports to comprehend when it comes to classification.
Unlike sports like swimming and track and field that have many classifications, Para snowboard’s is “fairly straightforward,” according to U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding Associate Director Jessica Smith, in that it offers three sport classes – two for athletes with leg impairments and one for athletes with arm impairments.
Many of the athletes on the U.S. Para snowboard national team, such as two-time Paralympic medalist Keith Gabel, only have to be classified once in their careers.
“For me the classification process was pretty cut and dry,” Gabel said. “I’m missing my leg below the knee about mid-calf, so that’s pretty simple.”
Para snowboard’s classification system is put in place to minimize the impact of impairments on sport performance, and to ensure the success of riders is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance and tactical ability, just like their able-bodied counterparts.
Eligible impairment types for Para snowboard include impaired muscle power, impaired range of motion, limb deficiency, ataxia, leg-length difference, hypertonia and athetosis.
All of these impairment types fit into one of the three sport classes: SB-LL1, SB-LL2 and SB-UL.
Athletes classified in the SB-LL1 sport class have a significant impairment in one lower limb, such as an above-the-knee amputation, or a significant combined impairment in two lower limbs, such as major muscle weakness or spasticity in both legs. The athlete’s impairment affects his or her ability to balance, control the board and absorb the terrain.
Those with single-leg amputations, such as Paralympic champion Mike Schultz, use a prosthesis and during the classification process simply have to go through basic motions to show their physical capabilities. Schultz said his own classification was “pretty black and white,” but for those athletes with nerve damage or nerve control it may get trickier as it is less visibly obvious what movements they are capable of. National team members and Paralympic gold medalists Brenna Huckaby and Noah Elliott also fall within this class.
The SB-LL2 sport class is for athletes with an impairment in one or two legs with less activity limitation, such as a below-the-knee amputation or mild spasticity. Gabel, who amputated his left leg below the knee after an industrial accident crushed it in 2005, has a very visible impairment that put him in this classification, whereas others may have one that’s not as easily seen.
“It gets pretty challenging when you get into partial paralysis, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, when you’re dealing with limbs that work on some days and don’t on others,” Gabel said.
Brittani Coury, Zach Miller and Joe Pleban are the other national team members who fall into this category.
Para snowboarders in the third class, SB-UL, have impairments of their upper limbs, which impacts their ability to balance when racing down the slopes. Mike Minor, who won Paralympic gold in banked slalom in 2018, is the most well-known U.S. rider in this category.
While Para snowboarding classification is relatively simple in its current form, it’s something that is always evolving as a sport grows and develops. When snowboarding made its Paralympic debut at the Paralympic Games Sochi 2014, there was just a single classification called SB-LL. Amy Purdy, who has both legs amputated below the knee, competed in that class and won a bronze medal in snowboardcross, the only women’s snowboarding event. When she returned to compete in Sochi in 2018, she did so in the SB-LL1 classification. There are, for example, no current classifications for athletes with visual impairments. With time, and more athletes competing with these impairments, the classification system would evolve.
As Para snowboarding is still a sport that’s relatively new to the Paralympic Games program, it is still rapidly developing, and with it athletes and fans should expect the classification system to gradually be refined in the future as well.