U.S. adaptive snowboarding team trains in Steamboat with eye on Paralympics gold
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Keith Gabel lost his leg in an industrial accident while drilling for oil in Utah, professional snowmobiler Schultz was injured after being tossed from a machine during a heated race and Amy Purdy contracted a form of bacterial meningitis and had both legs amputated below the knee at the age of 19.
The stories of how the members of the U.S. adaptive snowboarding team arrived at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs as part of a week-long training session are as varied as the snowflakes that fall from the sky.
But there is no question that they all share more than a few things in common, and at the top of the list, is the desire to represent the U.S. at the Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, March 9 to 18.
“Really this is the pinnacle,” Gabel said. “Everyone who tunes in and watches what we do come March will see four years for some athletes in the making, and for some athletes, eight years.”
Gabel won a bronze medal four years ago in Sochi and, like all of his teammates, is hoping for continued success. The athletes will find out if they have made the team in the next few weeks, after one final World Cup event in Big White Ski Resort in Canada.
This week, those athletes were taking advantage of the newly constructed snowboard cross training course that was built on Howelsen Hill earlier this winter and were focused on results, not the hurdles they have faced in life.
“I try to focus on the silver lining of everything,” Gabel said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got it awesome. I feel fortunate to be doing what I love. My true passion is snowboarding — it’s my church.”
Just before he turned 21, Gabel was working as a well driller in the oil industry in Utah when he got his foot caught in a machine and it was crushed by 2,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure. He had four blood transfusions and nearly lost his life before doctors amputated his left leg below the knee. He was on a snowboard three months after the accident.
“It’s been a cool run,” Gabel said. “I won bronze in Sochi, I’ve got almost 30 World Cup medals, two X Games golds and I took a bronze at Dew Tour last month. It’s such a fun thing to do — it’s rad.”
Mike Schutz is currently leading the world in both snowboard cross and banked slalom, and his biggest competition is Noah Elliott, who is also on the U.S. Team, but that hasn’t stopped the two from becoming good friends.
Schultz helps sponsor Elliot, and Schultz’s company BioDapt manufactures the Moto Knee and Versa Foot, specialized prosthetics that allow amputees to perform at a higher level on the course. The devices also allow those with impairments to ride dirt bikes and snowmobiles, which are also Schultz’s passions.
Schultz lost his leg above the knee after a snowmobiling accident in 2008.
“I was charging, and the sled started swapping side to side and kind of pitched me off to the side, and I landed with all my weight on my left leg,” Schultz said. “On impact, my leg hyperextended, and I suffered a compound fracture, and it did a ton of damage. It was kind of crazy because my kidney started shutting down, and in those three days, I went through 47 units of blood. They came in and told me, ‘We’ve got to take your leg if you want to move forward, if you want to survive.’ It was pretty easy decision.”
Schultz got into snowboarding after he started his company in 2010. He said he was out testing his prosthetics to see how they could be used in snowboarding and that led to him landing a spot on the U.S. team.
Amy Purdy started snowboarding when she was 15, and she never dreamed that the sport would become such a huge part of her life. She was 19 when she contracted Neisseria meningitis.
“Within 24 hours, I was in the hospital on life support and given a less than 2 percent chance of living,” Purdy said. “I went into septic shock, and I lost both my legs below the knees. I also had a kidney transplant.”
But Purdy, an avid snowboarder before losing her legs, wanted to get back on the slopes with her friends and ended up designing her own prosthetic leg. She also started a nonprofit, Adaptive Action Sports, to aid athletes with physical disabilities and earned a bronze medal at the 2014 Paralympic Games.
“I love boardercross; it’s my favorite” Purdy said. “When I had legs, I was more of a park rider, so I loved doing jumps and playing on my board and it’s super free and fun. Boardercross is kind of the mix between racing and freestyle where you get to play around on jumps and figure out how to ride them the best you can, but at the same time you get to go as fast as possible.”
Her teammate Brittani Coury is also hoping to compete in first Paralympic Games and believes her time in Steamboat could give the team an edge.
“It’s been awesome,” Coury said. “I don’t really feel like I have any challenges when I have the right equipment. I try not to focus on my challenges. I try to overcome those and focus on what I can do — my strengths and just being the first one at the bottom of the course. I hope I stay upright and do the best that I can to be a good representative for my country.”
Cody Brown, an assistant with the U.S. Paralympic team, used to work with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s Pro-Am boardercross program. He took the position with the Paralympic team this year.
“Steamboat has all the resources we need to have an effective training camp,” Brown said. “It’s been awesome working with the Winter Sports Club, being able to train on a boardercross course, set gates … They have been super facilitating.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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