By staying positive and being determined, I was able to accomplish my goals. —Keith Gabel
TAYLORSVILLE — Keith Gabel spread his feet on the brown carpet and squatted into the stance he uses when riding a snowboard down a snow-covered mountain.
While most of the children in the room did the same, one little boy just stood there staring at the 29-year-old Ogden man.
“I’m just looking at your leg,” he says, pointing slightly to the prosthetic on Gabel’s left foot.
Gabel grins, “Yeah. It’s cool, huh?”
The boy doesn’t respond.
Maybe he isn’t sure. Maybe he’s trying to understand how someone can even walk on prosthetic limb, let alone snowboard. When asked about it later, he just shrugs and shakes his head.
“I think he’s awesome,” the boy says as he clamors for a chance to touch the fake foot.
Eventually he simply joins in the mock snowboard session as Gabel describes how he lost his foot in an industrial accident eight years ago and is now on the verge of representing the United States in the 2014 Paralympic Games.
“By staying positive and being determined, I was able to accomplish my goals,” he says.
He shows them pictures of him flying, sometimes upside down, on snowboard cross courses. It’s a sport making its debut in the 2014 Paralympics, and Gabel hopes to be among the first to compete for gold in the sport that’s helped him navigate life’s dark times, even before he lost his foot.
“I’ve snowboarded since I was 15,” he says. “I can’t say I would have gone toward snowboarding if I hadn’t done it before the accident, but athletics has always been part of my life, ever since I can remember. I assume I would have done something. Snowboarding is my church. It really is. It’s what I do.”
He elicits “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” and some gasps from the crowd with pictures of his tricks. He currently holds the world record for the highest jump hit by an amputee — 65-plus feet.
“You’re crazy, man!” one boy yells.
Gabel laughs and says, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
No matter what the youngsters gathered in the activity room of the YMCA’s Family Community Center in Taylorsville the day before Thanksgiving throw at him, he responds with a smile. The graduate of Ben Lomond High School in Ogden is speaking with the children because of a program called Team for Tomorrow — an initiative launched by the USOC in 2008 that provides opportunities for Olympians and Paralympians to serve their local communities.
Gabel would be looking for opportunities like this one — with or without an official program. In part because he knows firsthand what it’s like to wonder what will be possible after losing a limb.
In June 2005, Gabel’s left foot was crushed in an industrial accident. After multiple blood transfusions, 26 hyperbaric treatments and a blood clot in his left lung, doctors recommended amputation. He was 21 years old when he decided that losing his foot was his best option.
Doctors had to cut part of his leg off so he could be fitted with a prosthetic. He said throughout the ordeal he had just one question, “When can I snowboard again?”
Doctors were positive, but some people were skeptical.
“They said, ‘You’re going to have to learn to snowboard all over again. There is no way,’” he recalled. “But I just stayed really, really positive. On Oct. 31, 2005, I went to Brighton and snowboarded for my first time as an amputee.”
Two years ago, Gabel started winning on the World Cup circuit and that’s when another dream took hold: representing the United States in the Paralympic Games.
“I have a motto,” he says smiling and brushing his hair away from his face. “If you’re not crashing, you’re not trying hard enough.”
The children laugh at this. And then one little boy raises his hand.
“I’m positive when I play baseball,” he says. He gets a high-five for that.
A little girl raises her hand high, and Gabel calls on her.
“Are your dreams coming true?”
He smiles wide again.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I dreamed my whole life to be a snowboarder and get paid for it. So yes, I’m getting there.” Gabel is currently ranked No. 3 in the world in snowboard cross, and with the USOC’s support, paralympians are getting more attention and more support than they ever have. All of this allows Gabel the chance to share what he’s learned in life and snowboarding with other people.
“It’s amazing that I’m in the position to give back to the community,” he says. “One of the coolest things about this is that you get to come out and meet kids who otherwise would never have the opportunity to see a paralympian, let alone meet them and see what we do. It’s just a tremendous honor. I’m stoked.”
Team for Tomorrow affords Gabel new opportunities, but he’s always sought the chance to work with other amputees. His message is simple: Hard work, dedication and a positive attitude can overcome any obstacle.
His favorite people to work with are veterans because most had an active lifestyle before their lives were upended by an amputation.
“The vets are super stoked,” he says. “They’re usually adrenaline junkies, and then to be hurt, and have it all taken away from you it’s hard for them.”
His goal is to help them find their way to a new reality. It’s something he didn’t have when he was recovering.Comment on this story
“When I lost my leg, I went five years without meeting another amputee,” he says. “It literally took me getting on the World Cup circuit to meet another amputee, and that’s why I love doing this. I know what they’re going through.”
He understands that hearing “you’ll be able to do everything you did in the past” sounds a lot different when it comes from a guy who’s lost a limb.
“I’m doing everything I did and more,” he says. “I’m living the ultimate life.”