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 on day seven of the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on March 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
The culture of Para snowboarding is much deeper than the sport’s “dude perfect” stereotypes — it’s a family, and a grassroots community that depends on collaboration and support for continued growth.
Para snowboarding is still one of the youngest Paralympic sports, having just been added to the Paralympic Games program in 2014. The sport’s early success can be credited to a group of pioneering riders — many of whom now represent Team USA — who helped get the sport added to the Paralympics.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit crew of people,” said Keith Gabel, a two-time Paralympic medalist. “The adaptive community isn’t huge first of all, and then you narrow it down even further when you start talking about sports specifically.
“Not too many people really hold the cards too close to their chest, as it’s not really necessary. It’s important to be growing the sport, whether that means having more competitors fighting for the same spot or not. The bigger picture is helping the sport continue to grow.”
From the National Ability Center to Adaptive Action Sports to Move United, there are multiple non-profit organizations now offering adaptive snowboarding programs. Adaptive Action Sports, for example, which was founded by three-time Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy and her husband Daniel Gale, is currently training 12 athletes full-time in hopes of helping them make the Para snowboarding national team.
“I thrive on challenging myself and helping others to do the same,” Purdy said.
Major sponsors are pitching in to help build the sport’s culture, too, such as The Hartford which donates snowboarding gear to programs and athletes each year. Often times, these organizations and brands work in unison to help grow the sport together, something that’s not always the case in other sports.
Gabel believes growing awareness for the sport and getting athletes into the development pipeline comes down to two major factors: resources and media coverage. These non-profits and sponsors are helping with both.
“We’re always trying our best to promote the sport as best as we can and find and develop athletes, because they’re the pipeline,” Gabel said. “Athletes like myself, doing it now, can only do it for so long.
“I always try to be an available resource for people who have questions or concerns, and help anyone who’s looking to get involved in the sport, whether it’s just getting them some information or maybe helping them find a program that might be right for them or whatever the case may be.”
Alex Tuttle, a 2014 X Games medalist turned U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding Team coach, has noticed there is more of a “sensitivity” within the Para snowboarding culture than there is in its Olympic counterpart. He believes this is a result of athletes — many of whom are now over 30 and have families — recognizing each other’s history and backgrounds, and the common adversity they’ve had to go through in their lives.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie because there’s a lot of sympathy felt amongst the athletes about the challenges that each one of them have faced,” he said.
Those similar experiences are what makes the sport feel like a family, and the athletes do not want the sport to ever lose that feeling. It’s what makes it so great, said two-time Paralympic medalist Mike Schultz, who now creates the prosthetics for nearly all of his teammates, who are also his competitors.
“We really want to rub off on the new athletes and inspire them to look beyond themselves as just athletes, but also look into what the sport actually is and why it is that,” Schultz said. “We understand how important it is to work together to build the sport. That’s what really unique about snowboarding and the Paralympics — it’s new and there’s a core group of athletes who really, really pushed hard to get it where it’s at now.
“We are all deeply invested into making the sport better, faster, and stronger. That’s not always the case with many sports that have been around a long time. Typically, there are just athletes trying to perform, but as a whole, the group of Paralympic snowboarders have worked really hard to develop the sport, and because of that everyone’s a lot more deeply connected. Even beyond Team USA — it’s across the nations that have all been competing since the beginning — there’s good camaraderie amongst the majority of them.”