Noah Elliott competes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Mark Reis)
The U.S. Para Snowboarding team begins its next four-year cycle — with an eye to the Paralympic Winter Games in Milano and Cortina in 2026 — this month with a world cup event in Landgraaf, Netherlands. The 10-member team will compete in banked slalom and snowboardcross events around the world with hopes of plenty of podium finishes this season.
The biggest competition will be this year’s world championships, set to take place from Jan. 19-29 in La Molina, Spain.
A perennial favorite in the sport, the U.S. is seeing other countries consistently gaining ground. This season, the Americans are focusing on preparedness so that the boarders are in the best position to make the right split-second decisions in a race to help them win.
“They’re all hungry, and they’re all putting their nose to the grindstone and putting in as much work as they can to give themselves the best shot possible to be standing on some podiums this year,” coach Michael Jennings said.
This year’s team brings a lot of experience, as nine of the 10 boarders have competed in at least one Paralympics. Joe Pleban, a 32-year-old from Fredericksburg, Virginia, will hope to make it 10 boarders with Paralympic experience once 2026 rolls around.
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Though Elliott is just 25 years old, he’s already had a significant amount of experience in international competitions. The St. Charles, Missouri, native made his Paralympic debut in PyeongChang at 20 and came home with a gold in banked slalom and a bronze in snowboardcross. Before heading to Beijing earlier this year, he won a gold medal at the world championships in Lillehammer, Norway, in dual banked slalom.
The Paralympics didn’t go as he would’ve hoped, as his femur bone punctured through muscles on his amputated left leg. Despite competing in extreme pain, Elliott finished fouth in banked slalom and sixth in snowboardcross. He had surgery shortly after the Games and is ready to compete again at full health this season.
Gabel was part of the U.S. team that competed at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, when snowboarding was first contested in the Paralympics. The Ogden, Utah, native picked up a bronze in snowboardcross in that competition. Many of the athletes he competed against in that Games have retired, but Gabel, 38, is one of a trio of veterans who have returned to the team for the 2022-23 season.
Jennings said Gabel returned from the offseason with a focus and determination to improve his technique on the snow and his mental preparation off it. Gabel, Jennings said, brings a good deal of experience and knowledge about what it takes to win. A two-time Paralympic medalist in snowboardcross, he also won gold in the event in the world championships in 2019. Gabel will look to refine his approach after finishing off the podium in Beijing.
Geros is just 23 years old and four years into his competitive snowboarding career. The Cartersville, Georgia, native made a splash in Beijing, earning a silver medal in snowboardcross, just one board-length back of the winner. It was a massive jump from his ninth-place finish at the world championships. While Geros is the youngest athlete on the national team roster, he has already built up a wealth of experience to help him consistency throughout the season.
Huckaby proved once again in Beijing that she’s one of the world’s best. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native won gold in banked slalom and bronze in snowboardcross to give her four medals in four career Paralympic races. With the win, she is now tied for the most gold medals in Paralympic snowboarding history with three.
In both Beijing events, she had to come from behind to earn her place, showing her grit and determination. That will serve her well during a long season where everyone else will be gunning for her. While Huckaby will be looking to continue her dominance on the snow, Jennings said she and her coaches are also pushing to get her classification — LL1 — returned to the program after it was removed due to lack of participation globally.
Schultz showed incredible consistency in 2022. The Saint Cloud, Minnesota, native picked up silver medals in dual banked slalom and snowboardcross at the world championships in January. He followed that up with a silver-medal finish in the snowboardcross in Beijing. That made Schultz the first male snowboarder to win three Paralympic medals.
Schultz, 41, took time off after the Beijing Games but decided to return to the team and top-level competition. His offseason preparation showed he’s not taking that decision lightly. Jennings said Schultz has demonstrated a solid commitment to perform at a higher level than he has in the past.