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State champ receives Comeback Athlete of the Year award

Dylan Gabel recognized by Denver Nuggets athletic trainer Jim Gillen

Nuggets athletic trainer Jim Gillen (left) presented his annual Excellence in High School Athletic Training awards before Denver's game against the Washington Wizards.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Dylan Gabel put the “back” in comeback.

After overcoming a major back injury to win back-to-back state wresting titles, the Ponderosa High School senior was the recipient of the Comeback Athlete of the Year award given annually by Denver Nuggets athletic trainer Jim Gillen.

“This award is meant for Dylan Gabel,” Ponderosa head athletic trainer Chris Mathewson said. “He went through a lot. He’s truly the best kid you'd want to know.”

Mathewson accepted the award on Gabel’s behalf before Denver’s game against the Washington Wizards on Sunday. Gabel was in Oklahoma City to watch his brother Austin compete at the NCAA Championships.

Dylan Gabel was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back during his sophomore year and required stabilization surgery, followed by a 10-month rehab.

He returned to capture the Class 5A 170-pound state wrestling title as a junior and the 182-pound championship as a senior. He also was a captain on the Ponderosa football team and earned Class 4A Pikes Peak League All-Conference honors as a safety.

Gabel will receive a $1,500 scholarship for his post-secondary education at the University of Northern Colorado. The Ponderosa athletic training staff received $1,000 for its outstanding work with Gabel and the school’s many student athletes.

Also Sunday, Gillen presented the Excellence in Athletic Training awards to Boulder High School and J.K. Mullen High School. Both schools received $2,000 and an Automated External Defibrillator for their athletic training programs.

“I was really surprised when I got the call from Jim,” said Mullen head athletic trainer Joey Mahmood. “I was blown away. We have 23 different sports and 80 percent of our students play, so this (money) will definitely come in handy.”

Boulder head athletic trainer Shannon Aberton was unable to attend Sunday’s game, but the school’s former athletic director, Brent Graham, accepted the award on her behalf.

“Shannon was very grateful and excited that Jim Gillen and the Denver Nuggets recognize athletic trainers,” Graham said.

Gillen, now in his 23rd season with the Nuggets, established the awards in 2003 to help provide supplies, education and training for high schools in Colorado. Before starting his career in professional sports, Gillen spent 12 years as a Certified Athletic Trainer at high schools in Texas and Colorado.

“One of the things about working at the high school level is you learn how to be creative and improvise,” Gillen said. “High school athletic trainers don’t get enough credit. They’re working with hundreds of students; I’m only responsible for 15 players.”

Gillen added the Comeback Athlete of the Year award in 2011 to recognize the effort required by both an athlete and trainer to recover from an injury.