When Keith Gabel had part of his left leg amputated following an industrial accident in 2005, he never dreamed that he would find a career as a competitive snowboarder.
But, Gabel — a three-time Paralympian and two-time Paralympic medalist — did just that. Now, he’s doing something he says is more meaningful than any medal he could ever earn: giving back.
At the 35th annual Hartford Ski Spectacular hosted at Breckenridge Ski Resort this week, Gabel, a brand ambassador for The Hartford, the event’s title sponsor, helped surprise 13 athletes with disabilities by gifting them their own adaptive sports equipment.
That equipment, which is custom-fit to an individual’s needs, can be seven to eight times more expensive than everyday equipment, he said.
“For some of these athletes, this could be what makes or breaks their career. This could be what gives them that leading edge over their competition to take it to the next level — it could get them on the podium,” Gabel said. “And then some of these athletes, they may not be competing, but this might just be what gets them out and living life and getting back to what we all consider a normal day.”
Hosted most years at Breckenridge, the Spectacular is one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with physical disabilities. Put on by Move United, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting parasports, it kicked off Dec. 4 and runs through Dec. 10.
More than 800 athletes, ranging from first-time participants to Paralympians, turned out for this year’s event to participate in six adaptive sports.
On Wednesday, athletes on monoskis, three-track skis and other adaptive equipment carved down the slopes of Peak 9 to Beaver Run Resort under blue skies, a day after a winter storm left a fresh cushion of snow.
John Papai, a Marine Corps and law enforcement veteran who grew up skiing at Copper Mountain Resort and taught his two daughters to ski at Breckenridge, said he had 23 surgeries and four different knee replacements on his left leg before it was amputated.
About a year after his amputation, he started skiing again. Initially, Papai said, he tried to ski on a prosthetic but couldn’t feel the edge. Then he was introduced to three-track skis and started racing.
Papai said he volunteers with a program that helps people with disabilities go from skiing with assistance to skiing on their own and recently coached another marine amputee.
“Learning how to do it from somebody else who is doing it right in front of you helps tremendously,” Papai said. “Seeing people with disabilities helps others with disabilities know what they can do.”
This year, at his first Spectacular, Papai was gifted a set of giant slalom skis. He said he aims to qualify for the World Cup in Spain in January, where the sharp edges of the new skis will improve his competitiveness.
“You’re definitely going to need sharp edges in the World Cup,” Papai said. “It’s not soft snow like Colorado snow. It’s going to be firm and icy.”
Rebecca Johnston, an up-and-coming snowboarder in the Paralympic scene, also received adaptive equipment in her first year at the Spectacular. A lifelong athlete, Johnston said she got recruited to play volleyball in college but soon was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and elected to have her left leg amputated.
With the goal of qualifying for the 2026 Paralympic Games scheduled to take place in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Johnston said the specialized electric mountain bike she received will allow her to cross-train in the summer.
“The financial barriers to success in Paralympic sports especially are just so overwhelming and it can be really hard to find the money to get the tools you need to be successful and dedicated all year round,” she said. “I just feel immensely grateful for this gift because I never would have been able to afford it myself. That’s just a matter of fact.”
Johnston said she will be working full time this winter in Salt Lake City, Utah, while training three days a week in preparation for the Paralympics. The Spectacular, she said, has been an incredible opportunity to connect with other adaptive athletes.
“I just want to get to the highest level and go compete on the world stage and see where it takes me,” Johnston said.
Gabel, the Paralympian and brand ambassador, recalled his efforts to grow adaptive sports on the world stage, including pushing for snowboarding events to be included in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games for the first time. He said it is exciting to see the adaptive sports world continue to grow.
“I don’t really know how to describe inclusivity,” Gabel said. “It’s empowering. It gives you something to look forward to. It gives you something to shoot for.”