First-time Paralympians hope their efforts open doors for other snowboarders

October 4, 2013 Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:48 am
photo - Keith Gabel works out at the Olympic Training Center Weight Room in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Thursday, September 12, 2013. (Kent Nishimura/The Gazette)
Keith Gabel works out at the Olympic Training Center Weight Room in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Thursday, September 12, 2013. (Kent Nishimura/The Gazette) 

If not for the work of those before her, Heidi Jo Duce, 22, may not have realized her Paralympics dream so quickly.

That she rose in the sport in only a few months is a testament to the U.S. snowboard cross champion's skill and her seemingly boundless energy.

Now she and others will get a chance to show that all snowboarders with disabilities should be included in the Paralympics.

Duce, an Ouray native, had been snowboarding for 12 years before she heard at the Buena Vista kayak shop where she worked that she could train to make the Paralympics.

She was planning to leave school at Colorado Mesa, where she is a sophomore studying adaptive physical therapy, for a semester to kayak in South America anyway.

Duce chose to compete in snowboarding instead, going from falling down at the starting gate of her first race in January to four bronze medals in international competition and the national championship by season's end.

Her family saw her compete for the first time when she won the national title.

"That was awesome," she said. "I feel like my life led up to that moment."

Duce had the lower portion of her right leg amputated last year so she could use better sports prosthetics. She was born missing bones and toes on her right foot.

"It worked out really well," she said. "I am so glad I had that amputation because I would not have had this opportunity. I feel I am so blessed."

Keith Gabel, 29, and other avid snowboarders campaigned to get snowboard cross included in the 2014 Sochi Paralympics for five years.

The IOC announced the change in May 2012 and the U.S. put together its first national team.

"When I heard it finally happened, it was amazing," he said. "I felt totally rewarded. It was a long, hard battle."

But it is more difficult for those who cannot compete. The event includes competitors with lower extremity disabilities but not upper extremity disabilities.

That is a tough pill for Army veteran Marc Dervaes, 40, who lost most of his right arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Afghanistan in 2009.

He is one of two upper-extremity athletes on the national team. He hopes their performances will open the door for him and teammate Joseph Chandler.

"People are going to see the guys competing with lower extremities and realize that every sport should have all disabilities," Dervaes said. "Hopefully people will start to believe."

Duce, Gabel and Mike Shea, 30, who placed third at the 2012 world championships, are preparing for their chance and hope they can help Dervaes get his in 2018.

"Everyone growing up has that big dream to be a Paralympic or Olympic athlete," said Shea, who moved to Colorado to focus on snowboarding three years ago. "It's not about me. It's our responsibility for the future and for those who came before us and did not get this opportunity."

Getting this chance is motivation enough for Gabel, who hopes to lay the groundwork for others with disabilities.

"Coming out of last season I knew I needed to make changes in my lifestyle in diet and hours," he said after dropping 35 pounds. "It is such an honor to be able to represent my country and bring awareness to the sport. If you asked me five years ago if we would be where we are at, I wouldn't be so sure."

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