Keith Gabel competes at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Mark Reis)
The big reveal was unforgettable for Rebecca Johnston, a promising snowboarder who is hoping to compete in the Paralympic Winter Games.
Keith Gabel, a three-time Paralympian and an ambassador for Move United, won’t forget the moment, either.
Gabel helped give out equipment through a grants program and was a coach during the Hartford Ski Spectacular, which he said is the largest clinic in North America for adaptive athletes. The event, held Dec. 4-10, drew more than 800 participants to Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge, Colorado, and was hosted by Move United.
“I get to coach, I get to hang out with a bunch of the up-and-coming athletes, the newcomers, and share my knowledge with them,” Gabel said.
Thirteen athletes received free equipment, ranging from snowboards to snowboarding boots and bindings to prosthetic equipment.
“It’s really cool stuff,” Gabel said. “To be able to be a part of that is so cool. … Seeing smiles on people’s faces.”
Gabel said adaptive athletes have received 4,200 pieces of equipment in the last five years and “impacted 40,000 families and participants.” Each year, athletes apply to the program through a grants process in order to get a chance at receiving specific equipment.
There is also highly anticipated drama.
The program’s applicants didn’t find out if their equipment requests were granted until they arrived at Breckenridge for the week-long event. At one point, before the presentation ceremony took place, Gabel and Johnston were sitting among a group of coaches and participants. Johnston was anxious to know if she was a grant winner; she applied for an electric mountain bike, which she knew was “pricey.” Gabel sat there and was unable to say anything, even with the list of grant winners sitting in his pocket.
“Her name was on the list,” he said. “Couldn’t tell her.”
Johnston did receive the bike in a ceremony on Dec. 6.
“It’s a great piece of cross-training equipment,” Gabel said. “Especially when you get on a bike park or downhill course or trail, (it’s) very similar to what we do on snowboards. Especially boardercross. We ride those banks at high speeds. You’ve got to pick the right line or you’re going to shoot out of them. And mountain biking is a little bit higher consequence. If you shoot off the course on a mountain bike, you’re flying through the trees and hopefully avoiding rocks at that point.”
In addition to receiving the bike, Johnston was able to snowboard alongside Gabel and receive his coaching. Johnston’s moves impressed U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding coach Mike Jennings during a development camp last summer at Mount Hood, Oregon. The same thing happened at Breckenridge. A volleyball player in college and high school, Johnston was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in 2017. She opted for an amputation and soon turned to snowboarding.
“I was blown away at how good a snowboarder this girl was,” Gabel said. “She was a sponge. The only thing we kind of recommended she try, she would, and I mean she picked it up so fast.”
At the end of a day on the snowboarding runs, Johnston was seeking even more advice from Gabel, who won a bronze medal in snowboardcross in his Paralympic Games debut in 2014 in Sochi.
The three-time Paralympian said he could find little to fix.
“I was blown away by your riding,” Gabel told Johnston. “An above-knee amputee rider with such fluidity, such confidence, (the ability to) hold an edge and really take in the instruction and coaching, and instantly apply it, I was blown away.”
And now Johnston, who moved to Utah this year in order to train, has a mountain bike to train even harder.
“I have no doubt we’re going to see her (in international competitions),” Gabel said. “I feel like she’s going to do some big things.”