U.S. Paralympics Sno... Features Snowboarding’s “Thre...

Snowboarding’s “Three Amigos” Look Back On Famous 2014 Podium Sweep

By Jessica Price | Nov. 19, 2020, 9:30 a.m. (ET)

Evan Strong (C) celebrates winning the gold medal with silver medalist Michael Shea (L) and bronze medalist Keith Gabel during the flower ceremony for the Men's Para Snowboard Cross Standing at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games on March 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. 

Six years ago, three Americans stood atop the podium at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, winning all three medals in the inaugural men’s snowboardcross competition.

It was an incredible accomplishment for any team.

“When you’re standing on that podium and you watch three American flags go up … it was nothing but pride,” said bronze medalist Keith Gabel.

But for these athletes, the medals were icing on the cake. Not only did Evan Strong, Mike Shea, and Gabel collectively win the competition, but they had also worked to create the opportunity to compete in the first place — while setting the stage for others to come after.

The three athletes all came from different backgrounds, blazing their own trails in Para snowboarding. For his part, Utah native Gabel started skiing at 12, but switched to snowboarding at 15 and “instantly fell in love with it.” When he lost his foot in 2005, he was back on the snowboard in just three months, something he calls “one of my greatest accomplishments to this day.”

However, Gabel soon found that opportunities to snowboard competitively were hard to come by — when he Googled Para snowboarding, nothing came up. Instead of getting discouraged, though, he thought, “Let’s make it happen.” He decided to become an instructor in order to gain some clout in the sport, until a coach approached him and said, “Why aren’t you on my team?”

Unbeknownst to Gabel, there was club-based competition for Para snowboarding — plus, a movement to have snowboarding added to the Paralympic Games — and the World Snowboard Federation was holding its first sanctioned para event in Orcières, France, in just two weeks.

“All the stars aligned and it kind of fell into my lap,” Gabel said.

He got an expedited passport, sold his drum set and car — “Everything I had under the sun except for my dog and a handful of snowboards” — and made his way to France, despite having no experience in snowboardcross.

It was a gamble, for sure. Gabel had taken a huge risk on a sport that might not have a future. But when he got to Orcières, he found two other athletes who were already working to change that.

One of them was Mike Shea, a Californian whom Gabel met at the airport on the way to the competition. The other was Evan Strong, a Hawaii native who began as a professional skateboarder before losing his leg in an accident at 17. When Strong found snowboarding, he said, it “really fit like a glove.”

Strong won the competition in Orcières, and Gabel took the bronze. And while they didn’t know it at the time, from that point on, the three would be inseparable.

“We were all coming from different walks of life,” Gabel said. “And we started traveling the world together, in and out of hotels together, on the same flights together.”

Gabel even trained with Shea, hitching a ride to meet him in Colorado. He, Strong, and Shea all came from rival clubs. But they worked together to achieve the same goals, and according to Gabel, “We became pretty close at the end of the day.”

Soon, they were trading spaces on the podium, sometimes even sweeping the medals. Strong won several world cup races, a world championship, and the Sochi test event in 2013. Shea won two Winter X Games silvers and a 2013 world cup title. Soon, the media dubbed them the “Three Amigos.”

“For whatever reason, someone coined the phrase and it just kind of stuck,” Gabel said.

I want this sport to be around long after I’m gone. Let’s create something that can be around for generations to come.

Keith Gabel

Despite all their success, there was one goal that eluded the three athletes: the Paralympic Games. And since snowboarding was not yet a Paralympic sport, they knew that if they wanted to compete on the world's largest stage, they would have to blaze the trail themselves. Together, they worked to create more visibility for their sport and lobbied to have it added to the Paralympic program. Strong, for one, took part in an exhibition at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

“It was really amazing to be a part of that movement,” he said.

They also joined the effort to encourage the Paralympic governing body to add snowboarding.

“They gave us the president of the (International Paralympic Committee’s) email address,” said Gabel. “So we were writing emails saying, ‘Hey let us in, let us in.’” After being told no, “I think three times,” two seasons before Sochi, Gabel got a phone call. Snowboarding had been added, and the Para snowboarders’ lives changed overnight.

“I all of a sudden went from this self-funded guy who’s spending $20–30,000 a year to kind of just chase this pipe dream, to all of a sudden the U.S. team is formulated,” Gabel said. “All of a sudden there was funding available.” At the Opening Ceremony, “I remember thinking, ‘Is this real?’”

What came next was a major bonus.

“Everybody knew that (a podium sweep) was a possibility,” Strong said. “But that wasn’t the case at the Sochi test event the year before, so we knew that there was strong competition from other countries that could’ve easily taken podium spots.”

Still, the trio came to Sochi prepared to win, and Strong took gold, Shea won silver, and Gabel snagged the bronze.

“For all the stars to align on that day, and for it to play out that way, it was pretty serendipitous and really cool for sure,” Strong said.

Today, Strong and Gabel both look back at their Sochi experience with disbelief. 

“It feels like just being in the right place at the right time,” Strong said. 

Shea has since retired from competition, but Strong and Gabel — both of whom took silver medals at the 2018 Games — are working toward Beijing 2022 despite uncertainty over the qualifying events of the 2021 season. Strong is also looking to add surfing and skateboarding to his resume so he can compete in the Summer Games.

As they continue to work to create more opportunities for amputees in snowboarding, the three snowboarders already see the fruit of their labor from the past decade. Now, Strong said, the sport is “on the right track, moving in the right direction.” After Sochi, another snowboarding event was added to the Games, and more categories of disability have been added to competitions, something Gabel attributes to rising numbers of participation in the sport. “We’ve seen the sport grow tremendously,” he said.

“I want this sport to be around long after I’m gone,” Gabel said. “Let’s create something that can be around for generations to come.” 

Jessica Price

Jessica Taylor Price is a sportswriter from Somerville, Massachusetts, whose work has appeared in various publications. She is a contributor to USParaSnowboarding.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. 

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