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US Paralympic snowboarder Keith Gabel relied on positive attitude, determination to overcome tragedies

Published: Wednesday, March 5 2014 1:00 a.m. MST

Paralympic snowboarder Keith Gabel is one of six Utahns who will represent the U.S. in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Snowboard cross is making it's Paralympic debut in Sochi.

Courtesy of Keith Gabel

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.”

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