Gabel goes for gold: Snowboarder heads to Paralympic Games for the third time

Local snowboarder is a two-time Paralympic medalist

Keith Gabel competes in his second run in the snowboard banked slalom event on Friday, March 16, 2018 at Jeongseon Alpine Center at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games.
Mark Reis/U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding

Heading into his third Paralympic Games, Keith Gabel’s ambitions are far more golden than they’ve ever been. The Roaring Fork Valley snowboarder already owns a pair of medals — silver from 2018, bronze from 2014 — in boardercross, and needs just one more to round out his collection.

“Everything I’ve worked for to this point is specifically for these upcoming moments,” Gabel said in a recent interview with The Aspen Times prior to leaving for China. “I’m ready to complete the set. That’s bottom line for me. I’m going for gold 100% and super stoked to just have the opportunity to chase it one more time.”

At 37, Gabel is a veteran member of Team USA’s roster for the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, which get underway Friday with the opening ceremony in Beijing. He’s been at the forefront of the sport since it made its Paralympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Games, when Gabel finished third in his class behind fellow Americans Michael Shea (silver) and Evan Strong (gold).

Eight years ago in Russia, Gabel was like the rest of the riders in that he was simply happy to be there, excited to have the sport included. Four years ago in South Korea, when Gabel won silver behind Finland’s Matti Suur-Hamari, he said his goal had been nothing more than to make it to the gold-medal round, which he did.

Now, with Father Time lightly tapping on the dials of his watch, Gabel understands his opportunities to race at this level will soon run dry and he’s not taking anything for granted.

“I wasn’t 100% sure I would go for a third, and the stars aligned, and I was able to continue to compete. I’ve been really fortunate to make this a career and have the backing that I’ve had and the support from my family and loved ones,” Gabel said. “Just being in it for as long as I have, I’ve seen every athlete that’s in the sport start their career and grow into what they are today, on snow and off snow. It’s a tremendous honor for me to be able to be out there and be with them for at least one more.”

Gabel was raised in Ogden, Utah, part of the Salt Lake City metro area, and found his way to the Roaring Fork Valley about 10 years ago with the specific intent of training with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. Like so many before him, the move wasn’t meant to be permanent, but the draw of the area, especially in the summer, led to Gabel establishing firm roots around Aspen. On top of his snowboarding career, Gabel now has a 2-year-old child and he and his wife, Heather Short, opened a coffee shop last summer in El Jebel called Coffee Connections, or CoCos for short.

But his next career grinding beans isn’t quite ready to go full send, as Gabel has more work to be done in snowboarding. It’s a sport he got into back in his teens, before a 2005 industrial accident crushed his left foot, leading to his left leg being amputated just below the knee. Only three months later he was back on his snowboard, but it would still be years before the sport evolved into a career.

“I’m absolutely blessed to have had that happen when I did. Technology was ramping up due to the war, so the government was spending a lot of money on technology. I think that’s probably one of the bigger factors that played in me getting back on snow so quick,” Gabel said. “That probably set the tone for where I’m at today. I realized at that point the sky is kind of the limit. I never knew I would have the opportunities I have now and never in my wildest dreams would have dreamt of being a professional snowboarder.”

Earlier in his career, and especially prior to the pandemic, Gabel might have spent up to 10 months on snow each year, traveling the world for competition and training. Anymore, he mostly does his own thing and spends far less time on snowboard cross-specific training and more time simply chasing powder. His true passion is in the backcountry, and he believes the skills required to ride out there translate well to the boardercross course.

That said, Aspen Skiing Co. has built a world-class course in Snowmass this winter, using the walls of what is typically the superpipe to provide local athletes with some of the best training ground on the continent.

Officially an AVSC alumnus, Gabel still keeps close ties with the club and enjoys connecting with the younger generation whenever possible.

Keith Gabel competes on his second run in the snowboard banked slalom event on Friday, March 16, 2018, at Jeongseon Alpine Center at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games.
Mark Reis/U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding

“They are super kind and give me options for the gym there or when the kids are out ripping gates or something like that, I might get a text message from the director that if I’m in town to see if I want to come over,” Gabel said. “If it’s dumped a bunch of snow, I’m going to ride pow. There is something to be said for your mental stability and your mental training when you are just out there having fun and releasing and doing what you truly enjoy.”

With his 40s fast approaching, Gabel found plenty of inspiration watching the Winter Olympics last month. One of Team USA’s top storylines was that of veteran riders Lindsey Jacobellis, 36, and Nick Baumgartner, 40, pairing to win gold in mixed snowboard cross. Jacobellis also won individual gold in Beijing in what was her fifth Olympic appearance.

The Alpine snowboarding world being as small as it is, Gabel knows both pretty well. Baumgartner’s brother, Josh, actually lives here in the midvalley. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Nick Baumgartner mentioned in various Olympic interviews he hopes to join his brother in Colorado after his snowboarding career is over.

“I was so stoked. I was literally screaming at my TV when Lindsey was coming down,” Gabel recalled of the two-rider Olympic mixed team race, in which the men race first, followed by the women. “It’s definitely inspiring to know that the old dog’s still got it. You can’t ever count the old ones out. We got a lot of tricks up our sleeves, and that’s kind of the name of the game. It’s not always about who is willing to charge the hardest and stuff — you got to be tactically sound in every aspect of the sport. I think that’s where that veteran experience really comes into play.”

Keith Gabel competes in his first run in the snowboard banked slalom event on Friday, March 16, 2018, at Jeongseon Alpine Center at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games.
Mark Reis/U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding

Gabel competes in the LL2 classification at the Paralympics — a lower-limb division for those with slightly less limitation than the LL1 athletes — and will race in both boardercross (qualifying is Sunday, finals on Monday) and banked slalom (finals are March 12) in China. He finished sixth in banked slalom at the 2018 Paralympics.

NBC will televise much of this year’s Paralympics on its various channels and apps, as it did for last month’s Olympics.

A passionate racer, Gabel is equally as proud of his work off the course. He’s on various international committees, including through World Para Snowboard, and speaks on behalf of many of the sport’s athletes. He played his part in getting snowboarding to the 2014 Paralympics and wants to make sure it sticks around long after his career is over.

“We had doubts that we would ever get it into the Paralympics. And now here we are over a decade later and I get to go for my third,” Gabel said. “It’s time consuming, but it’s kind of a passion project, if nothing else. I want to see Para snowsports and see Para snowboarding around long, long after I’m gone. I feel like this is a good way to help continue the journey for other athletes.”

But Gabel’s own journey as an athlete isn’t over quite yet. He recalled being asked by reporters after his races in Pyeongchang four years ago — and he meant quite literally in the moments directly after he had crossed the finish line — about possibly retiring, and he didn’t have a good answer then.

A Russian honor guard soldier salutes as silver medalist Michael Shea, left, gold medalist Evan Strong, center, and bronze medalist Keith Gabel listen to the U.S. national anthem during a medal ceremony at the 2014 Winter Paralympic on Friday, March 14, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Heading into Beijing, not much has changed in that regard. Gabel is like most of the other athletes in that he’s put so much into this year’s Paralympics, there hasn’t been time to dwell on what comes after.

Could he head into retirement after the snow melts this spring? Certainly.

Then again, as Baumgartner proved, age is just a number, and the 2026 Paralympics in Italy aren’t that far away.

Before any golden sunsets, however, Gabel’s going for a less fleeting type of gold. That is, the eternal glory type that comes with winning at the Paralympics.

“It’s always floating around. It’s hard to think past the Games, because in a quad, that’s your main goal, is to make it to those days and then everything after that is just kind of on the backburner,” Gabel said of retirement. “In Beijing, my goal is gold. I want the gold. I’m hungry, I’m ready for it, I’ve trained my butt off. This is 12 years in the making for me.”

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