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