- Dan Cnossen found that the same attitude that made him a success in many other fields translated into a medal haul from the Paralympics.
Lieutenant Commander Dan Cnossen, a retired Navy SEAL, has had quite the decorated career outside of athletics. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy, attended Harvard for his master’s degree and is working on a second. He was also awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.
And now he’s bringing home hardware from the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea—including a gold medal.
“I’ve come to find out that there’s a lot of parallel to life in the military and life as an athlete,” Cnossen says. “Discipline, mental fortitude, regimen and dedicating to a schedule are all important things. You can’t go from jumping out of a plane with oxygen on your first night and there’s a process that you need to execute. Bodies adapt to training and I love seeing how a unit, team or individual can evolve.”
After losing both of his legs, that attitude has helped him continue his athletic career.
“After an injury, it’s great to see progress and large jumps,” Cnossen says. “It’s possible to show that you can go from a hospital-bound existence to handcycling or running within a couple years. It’s mind blowing.”
Cnossen grew up playing team sports outside of Topeka, Kansas. Late into his high school career, he decided to run one season of track during his senior year. He thrived in the one mile and two mile, and decided that he would compete at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I believe I had a natural ability to swim, bike and run but I just wasn’t exposed to those sports so much in my part of the country,” Cnossen says. “I do think that I had natural power that would’ve made a good cross-country skier as well. However, the way I think about it, if I had that opportunity before, I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to do it on a sit-ski.”
In September 2009, Cnossen was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, participating in a combined raid with U.S. and Afghan forces at night, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. The blast resulted in severe damage to his lower body and the amputation of both legs. He discovered this when he awoke in intensive care at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center in the United States after being unconscious for eight days. He underwent more than 40 surgeries to repair injuries and internal damage.
Eventually, Cnossen made his way out for rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Center. Cnossen ended up doing about a year and a half of physical therapy, spread out over a few re-admission cycles. Near the end of his time at Walter Reed, Cnossen met with a recruiter who invited him to a sports camp in San Diego, where people are introduced to sports that are available to Paralympic athletes. He remembered his days as a runner and assumed that he would do track. Instead, he met with the U.S. Cross Country and Biathlon coaches. One of them had a National Guard background, competed for the U.S. and had also served in Iraq.
“It was a natural fit, and soon enough I was headed to a winter sports camp in Montana,” Cnossen says. “I got a chance to try the biathlon and skiing. I was finally getting out into the woods for the first time since my injury. I was moving and shooting so this was all taking me back to my days in the military. It was very challenging in the beginning but I was drawn to that.”
He moved to Colorado and managed to land a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Ski Team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He finished 14th in the 7.5km sitting competition biathlon event in Sochi.
One of the biggest areas that Cnossen believed he needed to work on was his upper body, since he had been so used to just using his legs as a runner. While the casual viewer of Cnossen at the Paralympics may notice a lot of motion and action with his arms, he’s focused on strengthening his core and continuing to power his engine.
“I do a lot of cross training because a lot of time there is no snow and I need to do work that would replicate and activate the right muscle groups. Recently, I got into prone paddleboarding as part of branching out from trying to stay in shape for surfing. It’s not like regular paddleboarding because you lay down and you swim in a freestyle stroke where you can also do a double-arm stroke. That’s pretty similar to what we’re doing now. I’ve also been doing a lot of handcycling.”
In addition to tweaks in his training, Cnossen also approached PyeongChang differently from Sochi due to changes in equipment and body composition.
Cnossen trained a little bit less intensely this time around, as he thinks that he may have slightly overtrained for his first Paralympics. That ended up providing a good base of training that he relied on for his next four-year cycle. He was also fortunate to make a connection with the program director of the U.S. Nordic ski team, who passed along a new sit-ski that’s made of all lightweight carbon. With more experience on the world stage, he’s learned more about sitting at the right angle and toying with pole lengths.
“I’m probably five or six pounds lighter than I was in Sochi, but stronger where I need to be,” Cnossen says. “I would do a lot of weight lifting reps before Sochi but now I don’t think I hit it as hard. I’m skiing faster than I was four years ago.”
Going back to his military days, Cnossen was in the habit of eating a lot to have a reserve of energy. He was never overweight but now realizes how much he can get by with fewer calories and still recover. He’s stopped eating large meals like he may have used to and just occasionally snacks throughout the day. The recovery period also allows for him to catch up on his schoolwork for his second master’s degree from Harvard’s divinity school.
“Having to take time for my studies while training reminds me of my time as a student-athlete at the Naval Academy,” Cnossen says. “Your workout window is so compressed but you have to make the most of it. That channeling is important.”
In PyeongChang, Cnossen is currently on an inspiring tear. Over the weekend, he won his first Paralympic gold medal—and made history as the first American to win gold in a biathlon event—when he won men's 7.5 kilometer sitting race. He then quickly followed it up with a silver in the cross-country skiing 15 kilometer race. On Tuesday morning, he secured a silver medal in the men’s sitting middle-distance biathlon.
“In my sport, we’re typically time trialing,” Cnossen says. “It’s an individual struggle to go as fast and dig as deep as one can. Nothing else matters when you’re out on that race course. Degrees or no degrees, how you got injured or when you got injured doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you can do right then and there. That intensity is powerful because it’s hard to replicate in other modes of life. I’m not thinking about how many people are watching or medals. What I care about is pushing myself as hard as I can for the moments of that race. After it’s all said and done, I will reflect on the experience and hope I can show people that there is life beyond injury.”