Utah’s represented at the 2014 Paralympic Games by five athletes and six individuals. Two alpine skiers and three snowboarders call Utah home, and they all have compelling stories of how they earned the right to represent the U.S. in the Sochi Paralympic Games.
The U.S. is one of six countries that's participated in every Paralympic Winter Games since the first competition in Sweden in 1976. This year, snowboarding makes its debut, and the U.S. sends 80 athletes to compete in Russia. The Paralympic competition begins March 8 and runs through March 16.
Related: Paralympians hope their stories will inspire others to push the limits of life — even in the face of physical disabilities
This 29-year-old snowboarder relies on a positive attitude to overcome the tough times that come in every life. The Ogden native and Ben Lomond graduate was introduced to skiing by his father, John Keith Gabel, at age 12, but he was seduced by snowboarding at age 15. In 2005, he was involved in an industrial accident in which his left foot was crushed. Doctors worked furiously to save his foot, but after more than two dozen treatments and a blood clot in his lung, he opted to have his foot amputated.
That was July of 2005, and by Oct. 31, 2005, he was back on a snowboard. He discovered competitive racing through the National Ability Center, and he’s been hooked ever since. He has multiple medals, including an X Games gold as his sport was included as an exhibition event in 2012. He is a medal contender as his sport — snowboard cross — makes its Paralympic debut in Sochi.
“It just feels my heart with joy to be honest with you,” Gabel said of participating in the Paralympics. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
Related: US Paralympic snowboarder Keith Gabel relied on positive attitude, determination to overcome tragedies
This Cyprus High graduate was a week from finishing his third deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq when the vehicle he was riding in drove over a massive roadside bomb. His legs were badly damaged, but doctors managed to save them. It’s thanks to innovative leg braces that he’s able to compete in the sport that he’s loved since he was a teen — snowboarding.
He discovered adaptive sports when he saw a video of fellow snowboarder Amy Purdy. That’s when he realized he could resume his passion for snowboarding on Utah’s famous powder.
The 32-year-old retired Navy petty officer 2nd Class calls himself a long shot, but as anyone who understands snowboard cross knows, anything can happen in the sport that’s basically a snow-covered version of motocross racing.
Related: Utah Paralympian Tyler Burdick's passion for snowboarding helped him find a new way to represent his country
A Bountiful native, Nicole Roundy became the first above-the-knee amputee to ever compete in snowboarding. The 28-year-old Viewmont High alum lost her right leg when she was 8 years old as she battled osteogenic sarcoma, a bone cancer. She first made her way onto the slopes in a three-track skier, and while she enjoyed being outdoors, she felt something was missing.
It wasn’t until she saw snowboarding that she found what she was yearning for. She got married last summer to Tom Whittaker.
She said her goal is to do her best and enjoy representing her country.
“I feel so honored to be here,” she said in an NBC video. “Not only to be able to represent the sport, but also our country. How many people get to represent the United States of America?”
Related: Bountiful native Paralympian Nicole Roundy found freedom, passion in snowboarding
The first time this Park City resident saw adaptive alpine skiing, she was sitting in a hospital room. She was convinced it was for her, so she made the trip to Park City in hopes of learning to ski.
“That changed my life,” she said. “I was scared half to death.”
The 44-year-old had just graduated from USC’s film school in 1995 when she was hit by an out-of-control car standing in her own driveway in California. She was pinned against the car and lost both of her legs as a result of the injuries she suffered.
Three years and 11 reconstructive surgeries allowed her to take that first ski lesson from her eventual husband. Her first Paralympic Games were in Salt Lake City and she’s earned five medals in three trips to the games. This will be her fourth Paralympics for the woman who owns four World Championship and five overall World Cup titles.
Danelle Umstead was introduced to adaptive skiing by her father, Pater D’Aquanni, in 2000. The 40-year-old mother of one son has an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa and early onset macular degeneration.
It was when she was skiing in Taos, N.M., that she met her husband, Rob. The couple moved to Park City after he got a job in Utah, and she found support for her athletic endeavors with the National Ability Center. She struggled to find a consistent and capable guide for her racing ambitions, so in 2008, Rob became her full-time guide. That means he skis in front of her and speaks to her through a headset letting her know when and where to turn and where there are difficult sections.
Just after competing in the 2010 Paralympics, where she won two bronze medals, Danelle was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Danelle is a medal contender, especially after earning the overall World Cup title in speed events. She took second in both the slalom and super combined. The couple has one son, Brocton, 6, and they hope their pursuit of Paralympic podiums inspires their son to believe in himself and his own dreams.