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Paralympic snowboarder Keith Gabel met big goals through baby steps

March 4, 2014
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Keith Gabel knows what it's like to face down a seemingly impossible goal.

A month before his 21st birthday, in June 2005, Gabel's left foot was crushed in an industrial accident.

"I had three dead toes that were completely black and rock hard. My surgeon weighed out all the options and they really didn't sound good," said Gabel, who suffered through multiple blood transfusions, hyperbaric treatments and a clot in his left lung before deciding to let doctors amputate his leg below the knee. "My only question was, when can I snowboard again?"

Doctors told Gabel - a Utah native who'd grown up on the slopes - to expect three years, given the right technology and a good attitude.

Gabel negotiated: "'It's July now and opening day is in October. What do you think about three months?' They looked at me, not sure what to say."

Two months after the surgery, Gabel was fitted with a prosthetic limb. At first, he could only wear it 15 minutes twice a day; within two weeks, though, he was walking without crutches. By October, he was back on his snowboard.

"Through the setting of smaller goals, I hit my big goal, which was to be back on snow," said Gabel, 29, who will compete as a member of the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding Team when the sport debuts at the Winter Paralympic Games, which open Friday in Sochi, Russia.

Gabel, who still calls Utah home, hopes his story will inspire goal-seekers in an ongoing community wellness initiative, "Road to Greatness: 90-Day Health Challenge," a collaboration between Olympic and Paralympic athletes and University of Colorado Health at Memorial Hospital, the official hospital of the U.S. Olympic Training Center.. The program challenges participants to sign up online and commit to achieving a series of smaller targets - say, cutting out high-calorie lunches or upping water intake - en route to an overall healthier lifestyle.

"If you have a goal and no plan of attack, it's going to be very difficult to achieve," said Gabel, who is now ranked third in the world in his sport by the International Paralympic Committee. "It's important to have those little milestones where you can see and experience confidence. It builds momentum and all of a sudden you find yourself accomplishing things that even a month prior seemed very impossible."

Not one to rest on past achievements, Gabel himself is participating in the wellness initiative to close in on even greater personal goals.

"My first step is cutting sweets out of my life for 90 days. I'd also like to ramp up my workout routine, maybe get in just a little bit better shape," said Gabel, who aims to be physically fit enough to snowboard a minimum of 40,000 vertical feet in one day. "If I were to go out tomorrow and try it, it would be relatively difficult, but with these smaller goals I feel that it will be attainable."

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Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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