SOLDIER HOLLOW, Utah — Dan Cnossen is trying to find his balance.
He can stay in the snow, bide his time and really focus on shooting. But such aim at perfection would slow down the 32-year-old’s preferred strength of skiing.
Yet if he’s not good with the gun, then the extra penalty laps would wear him down.
Such is life for a biathlete.
The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are just a little more than a year away. And Cnossen loves that, because the U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy SEAL knows the process is what’s important right now.
“It’s in the back of my mind,” said Cnossen, who along with Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games medalist Andy Soule, is one of the American frontrunners for Sochi. “I know if it was tomorrow, I wouldn’t do as well as I want to do. I don’t really feel ready. But that’s good. I want to feel the need to keep training hard.”
Cnossen, raised in the capital city of Topeka, Kan., visited Midway, Utah, from Jan. 4-9 and continued to show why others in the U.S. program have such optimism for him: He won three gold medals in cross country skiing and finished second in the biathlon at the U.S. nationals.
“I’m happy with how the skiing is going,” Cnossen said, but added that it was one of his worst shooting performances, and he didn’t have the benefit of being able to blame the performance on a malfunctioning weapon.
Cnossen did not grow up skiing or shooting.
He found his way to the sport through recruitment after losing both legs in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan. On the first day of his promotion to lieutenant, he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device). He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with V (for valor) from the Secretary of the Navy.
Not long after, Cnossen was indoor rock climbing and swimming, but he quickly grew to love skiing. Cnossen even moved to a winter sports paradise near Winter Park, Colo.
“Danger Dan,” as he’s been called, can get frustrated by the learning curve, despite his military-enhanced discipline.
Shooting the gun, after skiing, relies upon the delicate measures of being able to shoot accurately around the formality of breathing hard. On Wednesday, facing a shorter track with less punishing penalty laps for missed shots, Cnossen went for the gusto. He chugged around the snowy track at Solider Hollow — the picturesque site of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games — and didn’t concern himself with how the exertion would affect his ability to take aim at something about the size of a pin.
“My breathing was all over the place,” Cnossen said. “I went in to (shooting) way too hot.”
He jokes that people give him way too much credit for an ability to fire a gun, which isn’t exactly like anything in military duty. The SEALs aren’t exactly firing air rifles.
“I’m still new at this,” he said. “Still learning what pace I can get away with. I’m continuing to train to be a faster skier, because that’s what I’m best at. Some days my shooting is OK, but it hasn’t ever been really good.”
John Farra, director for the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing High Performance Program, said he admires Cnossen’s willingness to challenge himself — not just play the safest route in the short term.
That comes from a confident person who enrolled at the prestigious Annapolis, Md., campus in 1998 … despite not knowing how to swim.
The schedule these days is more about competing than training. Cnossen spoke about his future while packing for his next trip, to Wisconsin for a World Cup event. He called this trip a “big opportunity; a really big week.”
First, he will head to Sweden and then he will be in Russia in March.
Even the travel is different. In the military he said, they had at least a week before they were expected to have fully recovered from jet lag. Now, it’s a couple of days.
“Work ethic is the most important thing,” he said. “And fortunately I also have a lot of competitions.”