Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of Utah athletes who will be competing in the 2014 Paralympic, which begin March 7.
OGDEN — Keith Gabel didn’t know his childhood was tragic.
He knew it didn’t always feel good.
He knew there were situations that frightened him, hurt him and confused him.
But frankly, until he moved from Oregon to Ogden to live with his father, he thought everyone endured the unpredictable, tumultuous world that he and his four siblings inhabited.
“It was tough,” said the Ben Lomond graduate, who is one of six Utahns who will represent the U.S. in the 2014 Paralympic Games this month. “It was traumatic. There were times we went without heat, hot water, electricity. We fended for ourselves. My mom wasn’t around a whole lot. She did work from time to time, but she also ... partied a lot, and that was one of those things that affected us dramatically. We didn’t have someone around a lot. We were homeless. We lived on the streets, in and out of homeless shelters, and we ate out of soup kitchens.”
Gabel said his oldest sister provided stability for him and his two younger brothers. Their mother instilled a distrust of anyone in a capacity to help, so the children simply tried to take care of each other and her as best they could.
“How do you know what’s right or wrong?” said Gabel. “We didn’t know as kids that this wasn’t a normal lifestyle. We just kind of went with the flow. At times, there were situations, moments where you thought something was wrong, but you didn’t really know.”
But his stepfather’s suicide in 1995 sent his mother into a downward spiral that forced both of his sisters out on their own, and prompted Gabel to make a desperate phone call to his father, who was living in Ogden, unaware of how desperate the situation in Oregon had become.
Gabel woke to hear his mother and stepfather arguing, which wasn’t unusual. When he heard his mother tell her husband to “put the gun down,” he went to the living room and alerted his sister, and then he made his way to his mom’s bedroom.
“I was standing in the doorway, and I saw him pull the trigger,” Gabel said. “That was a pretty traumatic event. After that, my mom went off the deep end and became really, really hard to deal with. Both of my sisters kind of jumped ship, and me and my brothers were left on our own.”
His mom would wander at night, and sometimes Gabel walked with her and sometimes he stayed at home to comfort his brothers. He was exhausted when it was time for school, and eventually the situation pushed him to do what he’d never done — demand help.
“I called my dad and said, ‘You need to send me a plane ticket. I’m coming to live with you,'” he said. His father was headed to a ski vacation in Park City, and he took his son from the airport to the ski slopes at Deer Valley.
“It was a really good way to get away from everything,” he said. “Skiing became my escape, my release, and a way to let my aggression out in a positive way. The mountains have always been my sacred place, my church. It’s where I go to be one with myself, and how do you get closer to God than 10,000 feet?”
Gabel skied with his father until age 15. That’s when he was seduced by a growing new sport — snowboarding.
“It was still kind of taboo at the time,” he said. “And I’d been a bit of a rebel. My dad was really traditional and was kind of against it, so it made me want to go for it even more. I instantly was accepted into the snowboard world. ... Once I got into snowboarding, it opened my realm.”
Five years after he found snowboarding, he nearly lost it. In June 2005, his left foot was crushed in an industrial accident. He endured four blood transfusions, 26 hyperbaric treatments and survived a blood clot in his lung. It was the blood clot that prompted doctors to tell Gabel he had a choice to make.
Keep the foot, which was dying, and endure years of reconstructive surgeries with no guarantee they’d work, or amputate the foot immediately.
He only had one question, “How soon can I snowboard?”
Gabel’s foot was amputated in July, and his focus became the 2005 opening day for snowboard resorts — Oct. 31. After losing his foot, the most significant obstacle he faced was getting off the pain medication that he’d become addicted to since the accident. He was on multiple types of pain medication meant to dull the agony of dying flesh. But once the foot was removed, doctors told him most of the pain was in his mind.
“My doctor was very straightforward and honest, and he said, ‘Your body is becoming addicted to the pain meds’,” Gabel said. So he quit one dose at a time over a couple of weeks, enduring “gnarly withdrawals.”
“In less than a week (of his last dose), the pain started to subside,” he said. “That was probably the turning point.”
Gabel said the most valuable asset he’s had in making any adversity he’s endured eventually work to his benefit is a positive attitude.
“Looking back, I just stayed positive most of the time,” he said. “I just kind of accepted my fate, if you will. Does it suck at times? Yes. Am I strong enough to deal with it? Yes. Everyone has those moments, and I’m not going to let them bring me down.”
Learning to snowboard with a prosthetic foot wasn’t easy, but the worst day on the slopes was worth it. He quickly became proficient, and in 2006 he learned that there were actually competitive options for adaptive sports. In his first international competition, he finished on the podium in third place. Since then, he’s won three World Cup medals and won gold in adaptive snowboard cross at the 2012 Winter X Games.
He will compete in snowboard cross in Sochi as the sport makes its Paralympic debut.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be a part of this,” said Gabel, who noted that the sport has grown tremendously in the last five years. “It’s a huge honor to be able to motivate people, and to know they gain drive from my experiences.”
He found purpose not just in the competition, but in the camaraderie and in teaching others that the only limitations anyone has to endure are the ones we impose on ourselves.
He speaks to students and works with recent amputees to help them find the freedom on a hillside that he found. His message is always the same — with the right mindset anything is possible.
“It’s pretty essential to always have a positive attitude,” he said.
And he acknowledges that a network of support has also been critical in his success. He’s especially grateful to his father, his brother, Brandon, the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Colorado, and the High-Five Foundation. Without their support — emotionally and monetarily — he wouldn’t be competing in Sochi next week.
And while he has a goal to earn a medal, he’s most grateful to show the world just how capable and competitive Paralympians actually are. And maybe that will give hope to someone who feels trapped in a tragic turn of events.
“People always say, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I lost my leg,'” he said. “The truth is, you don’t really know what you’re capable of. You don’t find your true strength until you need it. Maybe it stemmed from my childhood, but I never accepted no. And I refuse to let this defeat me.”
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