Keith Gabel, who is ranked No. 3 in the world in snowboard cross, is a product of the National Ability Center, a Paralympic Sport Club in Park City, Utah.
From adaptive horseback riding to world-class snowboard and ski teams, the National Ability Center is renowned for its extensive range of programs for athletes of all abilities.
The NAC, based in Park City, Utah, is one of the most robust Paralympic Sport Clubs in the United States. The center offers 30 different sports recreationally, competitively, and some at the elite Paralympic level. Its members are a diverse group, ranging from children and teens with visual, physical or cognitive impairments to injured military veterans and servicemen.
Founded in 1985 as the Park City Handicapped Sports Association by Meeche White and Pete Badewitz, the NAC has grown from a small center for adaptive ski lessons to a premier multi-sport venue providing more than 18,000 hours of lessons and programming each year. Last year alone, the NAC served over 2,800 athletes in lessons, training sessions and competition events.
“We strongly believe in the benefits associated with maintaining a full and active lifestyle at all ages,” said NAC Program Director Ellen Adams. “We serve people from two years old to 80-plus with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Many of our programs also encourage inclusive participation of family and friends.”
The center’s headquarters are based on 26 acres of anonymously-donated land near downtown Park City. Its marquee facility, the Mountain Center, is located at the base of Park City Mountain Resort and houses the adaptive ski, snowboard and snowcross programs and equipment. Indoor and outdoor horseback riding arenas, an archery range and a 32-foot climbing wall are just a few of the facilities participants can access through NAC programs.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the center’s funding comes primarily from special events, private and corporate donations, grants and program fees. The NAC aims to provide programming to interested individuals regardless of ability to pay, so although most participants pay affordable program fees, the center has been able to award scholarships to 100 percent of those who have made a request. Though the NAC employs a limited paid staff, 850 volunteers contribute an estimated 20,000 hours annually to the center.
As a Paralympic Sport Club, the NAC is committed to training and preparing athletes that are interested in competing internationally in Paralympic sports. It is with this vision that the NAC founded its Adaptive Snowboard team in 2008 and partnered with Team Utah, a competitive snowboard team that trains at the Park City Mountain Resort, in 2011.
“Team Utah has a world class coaching staff, a proven athlete development program, and access to a private boardercross track at Utah Olympic Park,” Adams said. “This, combined with the support of the National Ability Center and its partners such as Park City Mountain Resort and Canyons resort, creates an amazing opportunity for athletes to achieve their goals.”
In cooperation with Team Utah, the NAC has provided elite-level training and facilities to adaptive snowboarders and put several in the pipeline to the Paralympic Games. In fact, when the first-ever U.S. Paralympics Snowboard National Team was named in May, no less than six NAC adaptive snowboard athletes were on the list: one on the A Team, and five on the B Team.
Keith Gabel, a former NAC/Team Utah rider and current Sochi 2014 Paralympic hopeful in snowboard cross, said the NAC introduced him to para-snowboarding as an elite-level competitive sport. Gabel met Travis Thiele, Team Utah’s current Adaptive Team manager, at an adaptive snowboard instruction clinic, and Thiele encouraged him to enter a World Cup event.
“(Travis) more or less approached me after the clinic was over and said, ‘Hey, I heard you have one leg. Why aren’t you on my team?’ Up until then, I didn’t know about anything,” Gabel said. “My first competition ever was a World Cup, so I was the dark horse and no one had ever heard of me, and I podiumed. Right then I said, ‘Maybe I’m onto something here.’”
Stephani Victor, one of the United States’ top hopefuls for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, trains at the NAC in Park City, Utah.
Some of the most decorated Paralympic alpine skiers are also former members of the NAC, including four-time Paralympian and 12-time medalist Chris Waddell; four-time Paralympian and five-time medalist Stephani Victor; and two-time Paralympian and two-time medalist Danelle Umstead. Victor and Umstead both hope to compete again as part of Team USA in Sochi.
In addition to alpine sports, the NAC hosts Paralympic development programs in Nordic skiing, cycling, archery, para-dressage and sled hockey. Greg Shaw, a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Sled Hockey team at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games, is an NAC alumnus.
The NAC’s mission extends beyond serving future Paralympians, however. The center aims to support individuals with any impairment in activities including cycling, snowshoeing, wakeboarding, Equine Facilitated Learning, high and low-ropes challenge courses, and more. Accessible equipment, from adaptive saddles and cycles to bi- and mono-skis and outriggers, are fitted to each athlete’s specific needs. In addition to use during official programs and clinics, most equipment at the NAC can be rented out for personal use for a small fee.
In addition, the NAC works to provide its veteran and active-duty military members with the resources and opportunities necessary to return to active lifestyles after injury.
From one-day programs to week-long retreats in individual, group or family settings, the NAC’s military programs encourage independence, socialization, and physical and mental wellness. To provide these services, the center has partnered with the Wounded Warrior Project, the Community Based Warrior Transition Unit – Utah, the Salt Lake City VA, Disabled Sports USA, and the United States Olympic Committee, which U.S. Paralympics is a division of.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, the NAC will host “Saluting Our Heroes,” a luncheon to honor America’s wounded servicemen and women for their sacrifices. The event, held at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, is meant to raise awareness of the challenges injured veterans face as they return to civilian life and to celebrate the strides the National Ability Center has made in supporting America’s heroes through its military programs.
The NAC is also working with the USOC to potentially host a Winter Valor Games in January. Other upcoming events include an Alpine and Snowboard Development Camp from Feb. 20-27; the Huntsman Cup Alpine Nor Am from March 25-27, and the U.S. Adaptive Alpine Nationals from March 26-28. The annual Ability Snow Challenge, the NAC’s last event of the season, is set for March 29.
“There’s a reason Utah is such a big adaptive state,” Gabel, a native of Ogden, Utah, said. “They have a great outreach to the community, and they’re constantly trying to be innovative for adaptive programs, which is really cool.”
The NAC, however, strives to expand its reach beyond the state of Utah, and even outside of the United States. For more than 20 years, the NAC has provided training and education in adaptive sports and recreation around the world, helping countries like Korea, Spain, Chile, Italy, Poland, Thailand, Indonesia and Mexico begin their own adaptive programs. More than 50 countries have also sent athletes, coaches and instructors to the NAC in Park City for training in adaptive sports programming, leadership development and ability awareness.