Keith Gabel competes in a World Para Snowboarding World Cup in La Molina.
When snowboarding made its Paralympic debut at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, just one event was on the schedule, yet it attracted worldwide media attention. The snowboardcross event featured athletes completing three runs down the course individually on a time-trial basis, with their best run determining the final order based on ascending time.
U.S. rider Evan Strong and Dutch rider Bibian Mentel-Spee won the men’s and women’s gold medals, respectively.
The sport has grown exponentially since then, which was reflected at the PyeongChang 2018 Games, where the program was expanded to 10 events. The snowboardcross discipline was split into three separate classifications on the men’s side and two on the women’s, and two riders went down the course side-by-side.
Banked slalom was also added for multiple classifications. Each athlete had three runs individually down the course with their best run also determining the final order; the difference in banked slalom is that the course may be a medium-pitched slope with a naturally varying terrain that includes plenty of bumps and dips.
“We have more categories than ever, both men and women, so we’ve seen exponential growth there, especially on the women’s side,” said Keith Gabel, a two-time Paralympic medalist in snowboardcross.
“We started with almost nothing. At the Sochi Games, snowboardcross was a time trial event, which is essentially what we do for banked slalom now. One racer races the clock at a time and the fastest person at the end of the day wins. Now, we’ve, at least in my category, worked to four across, which in my opinion is where the sport should go. The first one to the bottom wins.”
At the next Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, there could be up to 12 medal events depending on which classifications are included.
There are a number of differences when it comes to snowboarding in the Paralympic program compared to that of the Olympic program, in which the sport has been included ever since the Nagano Games in 1998. The only shared discipline is snowboardcross, as the Olympic program does not have a banked slalom competition but could be debuting a relay-style version of the event in 2022.
The structure of snowboardcross at the Games is the same, but at the next Paralympic Games only two or four athletes will be on the course at one time, which is less than at the Olympic Games. Due to certain classifications and impairment types, having more riders on course at once would be unsafe, according to Jessica Smith, associate director of U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding.
The Olympic program also has disciplines for slalom, giant slalom, halfpipe, slopestyle and big air.
There is one major thing both the Olympic and Paralympic snowboarding competitions have in common: American success. Six of the 12 Paralympic medals awarded thus far in the sport have been won by U.S. athletes. Mike Schultz is currently the most decorated male Paralympic snowboarder after taking double gold in 2018 and a gold at the sport’s debut in Sochi. Brenna Huckaby is one of just two female snowboards in the world who have at least two Paralympic titles to her name.
Thus far, less than a decade into its inclusion on the Paralympic program, U.S. snowboarders are certainly setting the tone for the sport, working just as hard as their Olympic counterparts.
“The time, effort and commitment it takes to be the best athletes we are is the same,” Schultz said. “There’s a lot of similarities. Obviously we don’t have the depth of talent compared to the Olympic side of things as there’s just not as many adaptive athletes around, but the top athletes on the Paralympic side are training just as hard if not harder than the athletes on the Olympic side because we have so many more dimensions to being a Paralympic athlete.”