Ogden’s Keith Gabel does not let losing a leg keep him from snowboarding

Mar 19 2011 - 10:46pm

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(NICK SHORT/Standard-Examiner) Keith Gabel, of Ogden, catches some air snowboarding. He lost a leg in an industrial accident in 2005, but learned how to snowboard with his prosthetic leg.
(NICK SHORT/Standard-Examiner) Keith Gabel, of Ogden, catches some air snowboarding. He lost a leg in an industrial accident in 2005, but learned how to snowboard with his prosthetic leg.

OGDEN -- Some people who lose a limb might wonder how they will adapt to life without being able to do something they love.

Not Keith Gabel.

Immediately after losing a leg below the knee in an industrial accident just before his 21st birthday in 2005, Gabel wasn't wondering whether he would snowboard again, but when.

"My first question to the doctor was. 'How long till I can snowboard?'" said the 26-year-old Ogden resident. "I felt like it was all I had to live for."

Just three months later, he was on his board again, learning to ride using a new prosthetic leg.

He logged about 25 days on the mountain that season.

This season, he said, "it's easier to count the days I haven't been on the mountain."

Gabel is part of a growing community of adaptive snowboarders who survive and thrive in the sport by overcoming physical disabilities.

Today, he's busy making a name for himself and his sport, having recently made the podium in his first international competition.

But he and the adaptive-snowboarding community face another daunting challenge -- gaining the financial backing and worldwide respect that many other sports enjoy.

At the grass-roots level, adaptive snowboarding begins with on-mountain programs at ski areas.

Locally, the Snowbasin Adaptive Sports Educational Foundation was started in 2009 to provide an on-snow experience for people of all ages with disabilities.

The program has grown over last two years with the purchase of specialized equipment, and has provided lessons and scholarships to more than 150 people in Northern Utah.

Gabel said he owes much of his success to the support of adaptive programs. Last year, the Snowbasin program booked a clinic with coach Travis Thiele, of the National Ability Center in Park City, who offered Gabel a spot on his team.

"After I saw him ride, I asked him, 'Why aren't you going to France with us?' " Thiele said. "I knew right away I wanted him on the team."

After a few training sessions at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Gabel and several of his new teammates flew to France in February to compete in the World Snowboard Federation's first European Adaptive Snowboarding World Cup.

Gabel placed third.

"Travis is way cool," he said. "He does everything for us and asks for nothing in return."

Gabel is now giving back by participating in the Snowbasin program and teaching others to overcome their challenges.

"I derive a lot of personal satisfaction sharing the freedom that comes with learning to ride with other disabled and able-bodied folks," he said.

Meanwhile, Gabel and his teammates are eyeing other top competitions, such as the upcoming World Cup events in Canada and New Zealand.

They're also hoping to see cash purses in stateside events like the Winter X Games in the near future.

The primary goal of all these efforts, he said, is to raise the profile of adaptive snowboarding and help make it an official Paralympic sport.

While snowboarding has been an Olympic sport since 1998, it has not been approved for Paralympic competition.

"Right now, there's only a handful of (Paralympic) events in the Winter Games compared to the Summer Games," Gabel said.

"We're fighting the same fight they were 20 years ago to get snowboarding in the Olympics. We want this, not just for ourselves, but for many generations to come."

As the International Paralympic Committee looks to add another sport in time for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, snowboarding is considered by many to be the frontrunner because of its popularity and growth.

"As I understand, it's a 'no' right now," Gabel said, "but we have a couple years to continue to grow our sport and change some minds."

However, financing remains a major obstacle for Thiele's team and others, complicated by the fact that there is no U.S.-sanctioned governing body for the sport.

"Right now, when we travel to an event, we're literally paying our own way. Everything's out-of-pocket," Gabel said. "We get a lot of small donations, and we really appreciate that, but at the same time, we need to reel in some bigger fish."

Despite the uphill battle that adaptive snowboarders face, Gabel keeps things in perspective when recalling the day that changed his life -- and could have ended it.

"After my near-death experience, I look at nature differently. It's more beautiful. Just the spirituality of being on the mountain -- I will never look at things the same."

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