Local adaptive snowboarders fight to get the sport into Paralympics

(NICK SHORT/Standard-Examiner)
Nicole Roundy teases Keith Gabel about a face he made for a portrait at...
Story by Jeff DeMoss
Standard-Examiner staff
December 7, 2011
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SNOWBASIN — When Nicole Roundy was just eight years old, her family faced a difficult but ultimately necessary decision.

Roundy had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer in her right leg, and in order to save her, doctors determined the leg would have to be amputated above the knee.

Fast forward 17 years, and Roundy, now 25, is happy, healthy, and tearing it up on the slopes as one of the top female competitors in the growing world of adaptive snowboarding.

Adaptive athletes are those who have worked to overcome physical disabilities ranging from paraplegia to blindness to autism. Adaptive sports provide an outlet for people to remain active and engage in competition with others who have faced similar challenges, but adaptive snowboarders face additional obstacles — there’s no official, sanctioned governing body for the sport in the United States, and despite the fact that snowboarding has been in the Winter Olympics since 1998, the International Paralympic Committee has yet to accept snowboarding as an official sport. But athletes and advocates continue to push for inclusion in the Paralympics despite some recent setbacks.

At age 16, Roundy decided to try snow sports, starting with a three-track, stand-up ski system — and decided it wasn’t for her.

“Then I saw people snowboarding, and I decided I wanted to try it,” she said. “They said it was impossible. I said, ‘no, it’s not’. I fell a lot at first, but decided to stick with it.”

Because she got a relatively late start (many snowboarders are competing at the highest levels by their late teens), Roundy found herself training with and competing against kids several years younger than herself, but stuck with it, and now she’s finding herself on the podium. She placed second at the Canadian World Cup last season, and has bigger aspirations for the future.

“Nicole is our strongest female athlete right now,” said Travis Thiele, coach and team manager for the Park City-based National Ability Center. “It’s been amazing to watch her progress as a rider.”

Thiele said interest in adaptive snowboarding is growing steadily, and his team now has 22 athletes hoping to compete at various events around the world this season. His best athlete is Ogden resident Keith Gabel, who was already a proficient rider when he lost his left leg below the knee in an industrial accident in 2005.

Gabel was back on his board just three months after his amputation, and hasn’t looked back since.

A serendipitous moment came last season, when Thiele and Gabel met while Thiele was conducting a clinic at Snowbasin. After seeing Gabel’s ability, Thiele immediately wanted him on his team.

“When I first saw Keith ride, he was such a proficient snowboarder, I didn’t realize he was a below-the-knee amputee,” Thiele said. “I said, ‘you need to come to France with us.’”

So they scrambled to line up a flight and a passport, and before long, Gabel was standing on the World Cup podium in Lyon, France with a second-place finish in his first major competition. He went on to place second again at a World Cup stop in Canada, and earlier this year placed third in New Zealand.

The latest world rankings aren’t out yet, but when they are released, Thiele said Gabel will be ranked second.

Gabel hopes to be able to raise enough funds to attend more World Cup events this year. He gets gear through endorsements from companies like Salomon and Bonfire, but said the cost of international travel is often prohibitive, even for the best adaptive riders.

“It’s unfortunate when you see someone who could be winning these events, but can’t because they can’t afford to travel,” he said.

Thiele said they have to get creative with fund-raising efforts, using social media and other avenues to raise funding. The National Ability Center accepts tax-deductible donations, and there are other groups that take on the daunting challenge of financing.

“We raised $7,000 on Facebook last year, and hope to double that this year,” he said.

The biggest challenges in professional adaptive snowboarding stem from the IPC’s refusal thus far to include the sport in the Paralympics. There is no IPC-sanctioned governing body for the sport in the United States, and it has been a struggle for Thiele and others who are fighting to get well-organized competitions in the U.S. recognized as Paralympic qualifying events.

The France-based International Ski Federation, which controls all Olympic- and Paralympic-sanctioned skiing and snowboarding events, won’t recognize established circuits like the Winter Dew Tour, X Games, and World Cup events, Thiele said.

“America invented snowboarding, and yet we essentially have a group of French skiers deciding our fate,” he said. “A horse can win a Paralympic gold medal, but a snowboarder can’t.”

He and others thought this would be the year when the IPC finally recognized the sport and added it to the schedule for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. They were especially excited earlier this year at the World Cup in New Zealand after learning that some representatives from Russia were on hand to check out the competition.

Then, shortly before the awards ceremony, they learned their bid had been officially denied.

“It kind of cast a pall over the ceremony,” Thiele said. “We were all disappointed after all that work.”

But the show must go on, and the adaptive snowboarding community isn’t taking the rejection lying down. Among other efforts, they have enlisted the help of a filmmaker to create a documentary about their plight. A short clip from the documentary, which is still in progress, has been posted online and received more than 10,000 views within a couple of weeks.

The video, “Dear Sochi,” is basically an open letter explaining why snowboarding belongs in the Paralympics. While it features adaptive athletes like Gabel, it also enlists the help of some of the world’s top Olympic snowboarders — riders like Louie Vito, Kelly Clark and Chas Guldemond.

Gabel said he’s confident the goal will be reached in time for the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea, but it’s tough to see athletes who have been working for so long, and now they’re getting too old to compete when it finally does happen.

“I feel a strong responsibility to help them out,” he said. “They paved the way.”

Thiele, who coaches at training camps around the world and literally wrote the book on U.S. training standards for adaptive snowboarding, said there’s still a lot to look forward to. This season’s World Cup events in Canada and the U.S. are just 10 days apart, so competitors from afar can do both in one trip. Also, Gabel received one of five invite-only spots in the upcoming X Games.

Still, Thiele said it’s “heartbreaking” to see snowboarding remain excluded after 20 years of effort, despite the exploding popularity of the sport in general during the same period.

“We need to put a human face on some of the political issues and show the world that there is real support for this,” he said. “I’m really proud of the effort our guys have been putting in, but nobody’s gonna hand this to us.”

He said there are some good reasons why adaptive snowboarding is growing too big to be ignored. Most chiefly among them, he said, are the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have led to a lot of soliders coming home with amputations and other injuries.

“That really has been the birth of adaptive snowboarding, just like Vietnam was for adaptive skiing,” he said. “A lot of them had some experience in board sports before they left, so it’s a natural fit for them.”

Specifically for single-leg amputees, he said snowboarding is an easier and safer choice because the rider is on a single plank instead of two, which provides extra stability for the full leg.

“If you only have one ACL, you don’t want to blow it,” he said.

While they continue to fight for their cause, riders like Gabel and Roundy work to make sure younger riders are training and working to further the sport. Just in case their best competitive years are behind them by the time the IPC accepts their sport, they want to be sure there’s always a stable of younger riders ready to go.

“We’re constantly trying to pull in new riders,” Gabel said. “It’s cool to watch them all grow.”

Once his competing days are done, Gabel plans to put more time into coaching and improving the overall caliber of riders. It’s only a matter of time, he said, until the quality of competition rises to a level that simply cannot be ignored.

“It’s never been about us. It’s about the sport.”

Jeff DeMoss

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