After a conversation filled with snowboard lingo, positive mantras and tattoo talk, we’ve decided that Keith Gabel sure is one interesting guy. Apologies to the Dos Equis spokesman, but you’ve got some competition. The Paralympic snowboarder took some time out from his busy schedule training for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi to tell us what it’s like to be a pro snowboarder.
Originally a skier Gabel jumped sports in 2000 when he felt he didn’t fit in with the skier kids. “[Snowboarding] looked fluid, and those guys looked like they were having a blast,” he recalls. “I was more of a snowboarder at heart to be honest, so I got my first job and decided to spend my first three pay checks on snowboard gear and haven’t looked back since.”
Though he doesn’t regret his decision Gabel has faced some adversity while pursuing a snowboarding career. In June of 2005 Gabel was involved in an industrial accident and over 2000 pounds of hydraulic pressure crushed his left foot. After a couple of painstakingly long weeks with the doctor weighing his options the 20-year-old Gabel decided to amputate. When he would be able to get back on his board was Gabel’s main concern after surgery. His doctor told him that “the technology is really good, and if you have a good attitude, which I can tell you do, I’ve seen it done in three years."
Gabel thought to himself, “Three years, okay. It’s July now, opening day is in October. How about three months?” So they amputated, and not too long after, Gabel was back on his board. “October 31, 2005, opening day was the goal,” he said. “I got my prosthetic, I taught myself to walk in two weeks and three weeks after that, I was on my snowboard.”
After growing up in Utah Gabel’s heart lies with big mountain backcountry style riding but he started riding super pipe a few years ago. “It’s fun to fly out of that thing and get out of your comfort zone. One of my favorite things of all time is hitting huge jumps, I love to soar through the air,” Gabel said. “My prosthetic feet have to be made for a man with the stature of Shaq otherwise I’d destroy them. They’d just shatter."
His go-to-trick when riding freestyle? Backside 180. “Some people hear 180 and they’re like ‘oh that’s lame you’re only doing half a rotation’ but with a backside you fly backwards the entire time so it’s completely blind,” Gabel explained. “If it’s done right it’s the steeziest (combination of style and ease) move in the book.”
At first Gabel had to find ways to adapt to riding with a prosthetic — like wedging things under his heel — but it didn't take Gabel long before he was shredding some true carve. Being positive is something that Gabel believes helped in his healing process as well. “My mantra is ‘the power of positive thinking will always persevere,’” Gabel said. “I believe that, 100%.”
Though he admits to having negative moments, and being human, it was when he put everything into snowboarding that it all fell into place for him. “I kind of just threw everything up and was like screw it, I’m gonna make my life all about snowboarding and that’s it,” Gabel said. “Then all of a sudden it was like the universe changed in that direction. About two weeks later I got invited to be on the World Cup circuit.”
The 2010/2011 World Cup in France was Gabel's first competition ever. Even though Gabel always thought he was destined for something awesome he never knew what. “Snowboarding has always been a huge role in my life, it’s always been kind of like my church. It’s my sanctuary, it’s my release,” he said. “But to think that I would ever make it pro, or anything like that, absolutely not. I just figured I’d be another shred head.”
Now on the road to Sochi for the Paralympics Gabel is part of history; this year is the first time snowboarding is part of the Paralympics. “On the bigger side of things, we are creating something for future generations. We get to build something that is hopefully around long after we’re not,” Gabel said.
While he has been on the road training Gabel has been fighting the itch for some new ink. “I really want to get some new work done, but financially I haven’t been able to justify it for the simple fact that all my money is being dumped into snowboarding,” Gabel said. “But let me tell you, I have the itch.”
Though he begged his dad to bring him for a tattoo he was forced to wait until he was 18 for his first taste of ink. Gabel picked a demon sun with fire and ice off the wall and it still holds a lot of meaning for him. “It’s very descriptive of my personality, I’m energetic and I got that fire, but I’m cool too,” he said.
The most meaningful of Gabel’s tattoos, or at least the most ironic, has to be the tattoo stitches he got on his right leg. When his dad questioned the meaning behind them he said “you can cut my leg off it doesn’t matter, I’ll bounce back”. About a year after that, is when his left leg got amputated, just an inch below the stitches on the opposite leg. “So the universe slapped me in the face a bit,” Gabel said. “But no matter what I’ll bounce back, because that’s who I am.”
Gabel considers the Japanese inspired sleeve on his right arm to be his “power side.” The sleeve he has in mind for his other arm is still in the brainstorming stage but he plans to make this side his "direction" side and fill it with things that drive him. The Paralympics symbol may even work its way into that one.
As one of the nation’s leading distributors of high-fives it's not a coincidence that Gabel works with the non-profit High Fives Organization. "I feel like I fit with them very well. They help people who are injured in the ski industry, it's all about helping them get back on the board." Gabel said. "They like anyone who is stoked. We have a saying in the snowboard industry — keep the stoke stoked."