As part of The Hartford's Ability Equipped program, Paralympians Keith Gabel and Hailey Danz presented athletes with $100,000 of adaptive sports equipment

By Georgia Slater
January 07, 2020 02:02 PM

For U.S. Paralympic athletes Keith Gabel and Hailey Danz, inspiring a new generation of young disabled athletes and presenting them with state-of-the-art adaptive sports equipment was a moment that will stay with them forever.

During this year’s The Hartford Ski Spectacular last month — one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with disabilities — three participants and two disabled sports clubs were surprised with $100,000 worth of adaptive sports equipment.

Gabel, a two-time U.S. Paralympic medalist in snowboarding, and Danz, a medalist in triathlon, know firsthand the importance of proper equipment and how difficult it can be to overcome adversity.

“I was honored just to be there,” Gabel, 36, tells PEOPLE. “These athletes, they’re so deserving. They’ve worked so hard just to get where they are, and the clubs as well. So it’s awesome to be able to be a part of something much bigger than yourself and really just help them maintain an active lifestyle at home.”

Credit: Hartford’s Ability Equipped

“Their reactions were pretty incredible,” adds Danz, 28. “You could tell they were definitely in shock. They certainly were not expecting us, which was really cool. I was able to talk to one of the athletes, John, who received a bike. He just said to me, ‘This is so great. I’m finally going to be able to go ride my bike with my friend.’ ”

She continues, “That was just so powerful to me because, as an athlete with a physical disability, that’s not necessarily something that you can just go and do. Being able to provide that normal experience of being a kid, I think is such a cool thing.”

Among the three young athletes presented with equipment were John, 18, who has cerebral palsy and loves to ski and bike, Colleen, 21, who is paraplegic and an avid bi-skier, and Leanna, 19, who is an alpine skier with spina bifida.

Credit: Hartford’s Ability Equipped

While presenting the surprise, Gabel and Danz shared widsom with the young athletes about keeping a positive mindset and staying active.

“I was told something by a mentor a long time ago,” Gabel explains of the advice he gave. “If you’re going to dream big, stop thinking small. If you’re going to dream big, think big.”

As for Danz, she reiterated to John that “having fun and enjoying yourself” is a crucial part of playing sports.

Credit: Hartford’s Ability Equipped

The two professional athletes added that The Hartford Ski Spectacular continues to inspire them each year.

“The Hartford has a long history of supporting athletes like me, with disabilities, so it’s inspiring to see that they continue to give back and help athletes become more successful every day,” says Gabel. “Just seeing the smiles, the high fives and seeing the reactions from everybody when they receive their equipment donations. I mean it touches your heart like nothing else.”

Credit: Hartford’s Ability Equipped

For Danz, being able to relate to other athletes at the event makes for an extremely special experience.

“Walking around just made me think about being a young kid who may have grown up in a small town and is the only person that they know with a disability. To come to an event like this and see people like yourself is such a powerful thing … to feel part of something bigger, to know that you’re not alone,” Danz says.

Aside from helping young athletes get their start, Gabel and Danz have their own sports to train for and competitions to look forward to.

Gabel recently wrapped two world cups in Finland prior to The Hartford Ski Spectacular and has been “keeping up [his] A game” by facility training three to four days a week.

Danz is gearing up to be a Tokyo hopeful, beginning her season stateside in Sarasota, Florida, before her racing schedule takes her to Milan and Montreal.

She adds: “I think it’s going to really be a great showcase of athleticism [at Tokyo] and I’m excited for all the hard work that I’ve been doing.”