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.