Keith Gabel: Overcoming Tragedy... And Amputation

Joshua Duplechian/ESPN

Keith Gabel experienced unfathomable adversity before he finished elementary school. He was kidnapped, lived without hot water or electricity and nodded off in all-hours diners. As an 11-year-old, he spent a winter wandering the streets of Eugene, Oregon, while his mother, Tanya, dealt with the suicide of her husband. Gabel witnessed the death, watching his stepfather pull the trigger on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1995. By the time Gabel lost his lower left leg 10 years later, he knew how to handle hardship.

Today, Gabel, 31, is an X Games champ, a Paralympic medalist, a World Cup competitor, an instructor, a mentor and speaker on behalf of the United States Olympic committee. Only recently has he started sharing the story of his childhood and how it shaped him. "I came from a dark place but I have a bright future," he says.

While Keith's father, J. Keith Gabel, knew his son had a traumatic childhood, he didn't know the extent until Utah's Deseret News printed a story in March 2014, before the Sochi Paralympic Games. "I broke down and cried while reading it," J. Keith says.

The early years of Gabel's life were spent couch surfing and relying on church food boxes and charity. Even when his mother was stable enough to secure housing, he remembers doing homework by flashlight or boiling water for baths because utility bills often went unpaid. There were no snow sports, no dreams of becoming an X Games or Olympic champion. Survival was his biggest motivation.

In 1993, the summer before Gabel started third grade, he and his sister, Brittany -- who is 19 months older -- were sent to Ogden, Utah, to live with J. Keith (his legal first name is John). At the time, young Keith thought he was visiting his father for summer break. He didn't know his mother had given up custody. J. Keith says that Tanya told him, "I can't afford to take care of these kids."

But later that summer, while his father and stepmother were grocery shopping, Gabel's mom appeared in the driveway and told her kids to get in her car. Brittany and Keith didn't know they were being "kidnapped," but back in Oregon, Gabel remembers moving constantly during third grade. They stayed with friends, family and at shelters, and he was pulled out of school every two to three weeks. Gabel said he went to 13 different schools that year and that he and his sister were given lies to tell curious counselors.

Fun day with the crew at the pump track. @teamusa @usparalympics @nike @aspensnowmass @evan_strong

A video posted by Keith Gabel (@grizzisms) on

J. Keith ultimately lost the ensuing custody battle and maintains that Tanya coerced two daughters to lie and say that he was an abusive parent. Tanya remarried and had two more kids, a total of five children by four different men. Keith's oldest (half) sister Shandra provided the most stability for the children, as Tanya was distant and often argued with her new husband, Dan Lawrence. On the morning of Christmas Eve 1995, Gabel heard an argument. Then his mother shouted, "Put the gun down!"

He entered the bedroom where his mother and stepfather were shouting. "I was standing in the doorway, and I saw him pull the trigger," Gabel told the Deseret News in the March 2014 story. According to the obituary, Lawrence was only 23 years old. His mother sank into depression and often spent entire nights wandering the streets of Eugene. Gabel -- in fifth grade -- often walked with her. If she refused his company, he walked behind her. They'd sit in 24-hour diners for extended spells. By the end of February 1996, Gabel was exhausted.

"I realized I had an out and I jumped on it," he says. He called his father and asked for a plane ticket. J. Keith picked him up and drove straight to Deer Valley, where he taught his son to ski. Before that, Keith hadn't been in snow since he was a baby. It was the happiest day in J. Keith's life. He had only seen his son once since Tanya snatched him away nearly three years prior. The trauma of witnessing suicide gave Keith nightmares, and his father and stepmother played classical music for him at night on the advice of a friend who was a child psychiatrist.

"I always remember my mom as irresponsible," Gabel says. "She didn't consider us kids. My mother showed me what rock bottom looks like. Had I not had that childhood, I wouldn't appreciate what I have today. I've accepted my past. It's made me who I am."

Gabel later picked up snowboarding, then became a well driller in Logan, Utah. In early summer 2005, he was working on an older skid steer with no bucket cage or seatbelt. His load was too heavy, and when the machine hit a pothole he was pitched out. When Gabel climbed back into the bucket, the controls were resetting to neutral and his left foot got caught between the stabilizer bar and the machine (the stabilizer bar sits flush against the front of the machine).

For 15 minutes, with more than 2000 pounds of hydraulic pressure crushing his foot, the company's owner tried to free Gabel before he finally succeeded. Gabel went through four blood transfusions, 26 hyperbaric treatments and survived a blood clot in his lung. The clot and the transfusions prompted the loss of circulation to his foot, so doctors gave Gabel a choice: keep the dying foot and suffer years of surgeries trying to save a portion of it or amputate it immediately. His response? "How soon can I snowboard?"

Doctors said that it could be 6-10 years if he kept the foot, all procedures went well and the gangrene didn't spread but just three years if he chose amputation. Gabel chose the latter and vowed to be on a board in time for opening day, a little more than three months away. He was walking in two weeks and met his goal of riding that season.

Gabel also returned to his well-drilling job in November 2005 -- and even to the same skid steer that cost him his foot. "The trailers weren't going to load themselves!" he jokes. But he quit after four months because the vibration on his ankle was too harsh.

How soon can I snowboard?
Keith Gabel

He bounced around other construction vocations, but 2008's recession limited the building industry. He and his wife were forced to downsize, selling their house and moving into a small apartment. Then she left him. To make ends meet, he went back to the drilling company and became certified as a snowboard instructor at Snowbasin Resort. What he really wanted was to compete, but he couldn't find opportunities for para-snowboarders.

When Snowbasin offered a clinic to help instructors teach differently-abled skiers and snowboarders, Gabel signed up. But he awoke to fresh powder on the morning of the clinic and blew off the class to ride with friends. He felt a twinge of guilt and his friends razzed him. Changing his mind and joined the group, albeit an hour late.

The instructor, Travis Theile, didn't know Gabel was the only student there with a disability, and Gabel didn't say anything. During a break, other students discovered that Theile was the Para Snowboarding team manager for the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. The students told Theile about Gabel. At the end of the day, Theile approached Keith. "I hear you have one leg," he said. "Why aren't you on my snowboard team?"

Two weeks later, in early February 2011, Gabel was in France on an expedited passport and on funds raised by friends and family. Although he never had ridden on a boardercross course, Gabel took back-to-back bronze medals in his first World Snowboard Federation World Cup weekend. Today, he has 20 World Cup podium finishes, including a win. In addition to competing, Gabel is dedicated to raising awareness for adaptive snow sports and offers his knowledge, both technical and emotional, to help others return to -- or discover -- the mountain.

J. Keith also has been inspired by his son's life. Shortly after regaining custody in the mid-90s, he gave up his job as a diamond broker to work with a non-profit that helped disadvantaged youth. Then he worked with Futures Through Choices, a non-profit improving the lives of people with disabilities. "People say, 'How can losing your leg be a positive?' but Keith wouldn't take it back for the world."

Related Content