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Paralympians And 2026 Hopefuls Alike Relearn The Basics At Mount Hood

By Paul D. Bowker | Aug. 04, 2022, 12:12 p.m. (ET)

Keith Gabel looks on after competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Mark Reis)

A small group of U.S. Para snowboarders went back to basics this summer.


Keith Gabel, a three-time Paralympian and two-time medalist, was among seven U.S. snowboarders who went to Mount Hood, Oregon, in July for a fast-moving development camp run by U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding assistant coaches Mike Jennings and Mark Kelly.


The camp held at Timberline Lodge on the south side of Mount Hood didn’t stay basic for long, though.


“We tried to take it all the way back down to the most basic elements of fundamentals that we could,” Jennings said. “And then the idea is as that information is being digested and applied, while I’m checking for understanding of the information, I continue to add more and more information as it is obtained and utilized as it’s understood.”


The camp, which was held July 7-13, was part of an offseason initiative by U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding to coach and mentor snowboarders to begin preparation for not only the 2022-23 world cup season but also to begin the first year of a four-year quad leading toward the Paralympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026.


A similar women’s camp was held in June at the same Mount Hood venue, featuring four-time Paralympic medalist Brenna Huckaby, 2022 Paralympian Katy Maddry and four Paralympic hopefuls for 2026.


For most, the actual season begins in November.


“Normally, in the midst of the season and everyone’s at their home programs, it’s really hard to target some of the fundamental steps that they need to establish, getting into gates, riding features, and that kind of stuff that sometimes gets lost with the travel in the winter,” said Jessica Smith, the associate director for U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding and U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing. “This is really bringing it back to basics right now for those guys.”


The men’s group of seven consisted of two-time Paralympians Tyler Burdick and Michael Spivey, 2022 Paralympian Zach Miller, and 2026 Paralympic hopefuls Joe Pleban, Colby Fields and Joe Chandler, in addition to Gabel.


“By having more national team guys at this project,” Smith said, “they can really not only ride with each other but it’s something we’re looking to see those guys make the jump in the coming year.”


All signs pointed to the camp being a success.


“I had two phenomenal weeks,” Jennings said. “Basically riding around with a bunch of great people I consider my friends and being able to share my love of the sport with them. It’s such a treat for me to be able to do that, to be able to share my love with people that are already so skilled and passionate about the sport. It’s basically my perfect students, my perfect athletes, to coach.”


The camp featured the return of Chandler, a former national champion in Para snowboardcross. Jennings said he reached out to Chandler to get involved again.


“I’m so glad that he did because it timed up perfectly that we were able to bring him out to that camp,” Jennings said.


In addition to a week of snowboarding and refining their skills, the camp offered an opportunity for the athletes to bond and, as Jennings says, share information.


“The team atmosphere and camaraderie was what I really focused on promoting,” Jennings said. “I feel like, as long as that’s taken care of, we’ll take care of all the rest as far as material is concerned.”


The team bonding included a visit to iFLY Portland, an adventure center that has a vertical wind tunnel to simulate sky diving.


“It was perfect,” Jennings said. “We had a phenomenal instructor (Jordan Meyer), who had worked with adaptive athletes in the past, so that he was able to coach each individual up to use movements that they were capable of in order to control themselves in the tunnel.”


The movements are not unlike those while on a snowboard performing tricks on a world stage.


“Very similar in our approach for gaining full control over our snowboards, and it also so much emphasized micro movements,” Jennings said. “If you think micro movements on a snowboard have an impact, wow, you can like literally lift a pinky in a different direction in a wind tunnel and it’s going to create a different reaction.”


The vertical tunnel, Jennings said, goes about 90 feet high. But most of the movements and instruction took place between 6 and 10 feet from the bottom as instructors were able to slow down, or speed up, the speed of the wind being created mechanically.


“That was a good reinforcement of, ‘Hey, we really have to tune in to the tiniest little movements that we can so that we can create the desired outcomes that we’re looking for,’” Jennings said.


Both the men’s and women’s development camps are events that Jennings hopes will turn into an annual piece of the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding calendar.


“We are looking to expand it at other opportunities throughout the season, as well,” he said.

Paul D. Bowker

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSnowboarding.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.