Keith Gabel competes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Following a whirlwind season in which snowboarder Keith Gabel competed in his third Paralympic Winter Games, the 38-year-old Utah native knew the time had arrived to spend time with JP, his 3-year-old adventurous son.
“So we went on a boys trip, took him on a road trip to Utah just to see my family,” Gabel said. “Just me and him. No one else. It was cool because up until then I’d never spent that amount of time with just me and him.”
They spent plenty of time outdoors fishing or biking. When they needed a break, they went to the movies together.
It’s perhaps fitting that JP, short for JohnPaul, was named after the JohnPaul Express lift at Snowbasin Resort near Ogden, Utah, the venue for the downhill skiing competition at the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in 2002.
Gabel still remembers the day he picked the name.
“If I have a kid and he’s a boy,” he told his friends one day at the resort, “I’m naming him after this run because it’s so sick.
“It’s almost fitting that he’s the all-gas, no-brakes kind of a kid.”
The boys’ trip may have been exactly what dad needed, as well. After a pair of seventh-place finishes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 and coming home without medals for the first time in his career, Gabel faced questions that he needed to answer himself. Would there be a fourth Winter Games? Would he continue a push that had made him one of the best Para snowboarders in the world?
The questions followed a winter in which Gabel carried the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremony in Beijing, a moment he is still emotional about.
“I just got goose bumps,” Gabel said. “Every time I even think about it, it just gives me chills. It’s something so much bigger than myself. It’s not about the person that’s carrying the flag at the end of the day, it’s about what that flag represents and if that person kind of lives up to that standard.”
Gabel, a two-time Paralympic medalist, discovered during the offseason that the fire was still there. And it was burning hot.
“I’m ready,” Gabel said. “I’m fired up. Every day is a new day. It’s a new challenge. Every day, regardless of how I’m feeling, I’m putting in the time and the work. I know that’s a big part of winning the Games.”
In addition to the boys’ trip, Gabel continued his martial-arts training in jiujitsu and proudly won a medal in his first amateur tournament in competition against able-bodied athletes.
“Trust me,” Gabel said, “when you have someone trying to cut your air flow off and break your arm at the same time, the stress in standing at the top of a (snowboarding) course just kind of seems obsolete.”
He also served as a mentor at the Move United Junior Nationals for adaptive youth athletes in Denver in July. So when it came time to travel to Mount Hood, Oregon, for a snowboarding development camp in July, Gabel was truly motivated.
“I’m fired up. I could not wait to get on snow at Mount Hood,” he said. “When I was told that it was a development camp but I was welcome to go ride, I was like, ‘Let’s go, let’s get back out there, let’s start dialing things back in, let’s see if we could learn a thing or two, teach a thing or two.’”
Gabel was among seven men at the camp, including two-time Paralympians Tyler Burdick and Michael Spivey, 2022 Paralympian Zach Miller, and 2026 Paralympic hopefuls Joe Pleban, Colby Fields and Joe Chandler.
“He (Gabel) definitely took a leadership role at the camp, reinforcing the information and then adding his perspective on that information in ways that he thinks about it and utilizes the techniques,” said Mike Jennings, U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding coach. “That was extremely valuable for both me and the riders.”
The 2022-23 season begins in November with a banked slalom competition at an indoor facility in Landgraaf, Netherlands, preceded by a preseason camp in October in Austria. It is the start of a four-year quad concluding with the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games in Milano and Cortina, Italy.
Following the Paralympics in Beijing, Gabel took some family time off and talked about his snowboarding future with his wife, Heather, who runs their Coffee Connections shop in El Jebel, Colorado, not far from their home in the Rockies.
“I can’t be 80, 90 years old on my death bed, or whatever, what if I would have put in that four years worth of effort?” Gabel said.
The decision to go back into training became clear to Gabel after those thoughts.
“I’m grinding,” he said. “And I’m motivated. I’ve got more fire underneath me than I’ve had in a long time. All I can say is look out because that competitive fire is well within my soul.”