First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during an event honoring the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Teams with Jon Lujan (R) and Julie Chu (C) at the White House April 3, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON – Four years ago, Dan Cnossen was in the White House under very different circumstances than he was today.
Back in 2010, he was at the White House as part of a dinner for military leaders, and he had a prime seating location at dinner, right beside First Lady Michelle Obama. At the time, Cnossen was four months removed from a life-jarring accident while serving as a member of the Navy SEALS in Afghanistan. There, an improvised explosive device cost him his legs, and at the time of the dinner he was just trying to get back in the groove of daily life.
When asked about his aspirations for an athletic career at that point, the lieutenant commander shook his head.
|Dan Cnossen competes in the men's 12.5-kilometer sitting biathlon at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Laura
Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center on March 14, 2014.
“I was focused on walking,” Cnossen said.
Today, Cnossen returned to the White House as a Paralympian. And he was given a personal shout-out by the First Lady for the incredible way his life has turned around. The man who was focused on walking four years ago is now an accomplished cross-country skier and biathlete who had just competed in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
“Dan’s come a long way in the four years since we met,” Michelle Obama told more than 200 Team USA athletes who made a post-Sochi visit and were gathered in the East Room. “I know that his story and the stories of all our Olympians and Paralympians are nowhere near finished.”
Michelle Obama outlined Cnossen’s road map to the Paralympic Winter Games, noting that four months after the explosion in Afghanistan he competed in a half marathon in a wheelchair. On the year anniversary, he ran one mile on prosthetics. He went on to win medals in the Warrior Games, and he completed the New York Marathon in 2:38 (handcycling 16 miles and running 10.2).
“He lost both of his legs in the explosion but he never lost his fighting spirit,” Michelle Obama said.
She also noted how impressed she was by the compassion and support Cnossen received from his sister, Leslie, who was at the White House during that dinner four years ago and has been Cnossen’s rock throughout his recovery.
Cnossen, who is based at Fort Carson in Colorado, did not know in advance that the First Lady was going to mention him in her speech to the athletes, but he wasn’t completely surprised since they did get to talk four years ago.
“It definitely was an honor,” Cnossen said. “There are hundreds of stories she could’ve picked.”
On a day when the White House was celebrating athletes such as Cnossen, who remains an active member of the U.S. Navy, both President Obama and the First Lady made a point of noting that their thoughts and prayers were with those at Fort Hood, where a shooting took the lives of four and injured 16 others Wednesday night in Texas. The Obamas knew their thoughts on the loss of life in the military world would resonate among those in the crowd of athletes visiting the White House since several of them come from military backgrounds as well.
“I know that many of the athletes here today are veterans themselves, and when something like this happens, it touches all of us,” Michelle Obama said. “I know that the president and I are just torn apart when things like this happen. So today, as we celebrate the Olympic spirit, we remember that the same spirit, the spirit of hard work and team work, is shared by our military men and women, and we stand with them today and every day.”
Of the 80 American members on the Paralympic roster in Sochi, 18 are military members. Their presence was not lost on the White House.
Paralympic alpine skier Jon Lujan, who was Team USA’s flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, is a former U.S. Marines Corps Sergeant. He was honored in presenting the president with a U.S. Paralympics flag (Julie Chu, a four-time Olympic ice hockey player, also presented Obama with a U.S. Olympic flag.)
The U.S. sled hockey team, which became the first Paralympic team to win back-to-back gold medals in the sport, featured several players with military connections. Rico Roman, a defenseman, is a U.S. Army veteran. Paul Schaus, a Marine Corps veteran, is a forward, goaltender Jen Lee is an Army sergeant and Josh Sweeney, who scored the game-winning goal in the gold-medal game, is a retired Marine Corps sergeant.
Like Cnossen, Sweeney said he had no idea he would be a celebrated member of Team USA one day and be feted in the White House.
Sweeney lost both of his legs and severely injured his arm when an IED exploded while he was serving in Afghanistan in 2009. A high school hockey player, Sweeney never envisioned he would be able to return to the ice. He had no idea what the Paralympic Movement was about.
Now he is one of the team’s biggest heroes.
“It’s really cool,” Sweeney said. “It’s like a second chance. When I left the military it wasn’t on my own terms.”
These Paralympic Winter Games, more than ever, got the attention of the American public, especially since NBC broadcast 50 hours of those Games. The sled hockey gold-medal game against Russia was broadcast live. Sweeney said he was blown away when he overheard someone in the Dulles Airport on his way home from Sochi talking about his game-winning goal.
“That was just awesome,” Sweeney said. “I thought, ‘Wow. Maybe sled hockey could become pretty big.’ That NBC did that is just awesome. One thing I was always jealous of was going to Canada and seeing all of their games on TSN. Sled hockey is so well known there. Maybe it will be like that here.”
When Sweeney returned to his hometown of Glendale, Ariz., after the Winter Games, he made a point of bringing his medal back to the place where he spent so much time in rehab. He showed the medal to guys who were in his place several years ago.
“I showed it to them and told them, ‘This is not outside your reach,’” Sweeney said.
Today, at the White House of all places, that message was reiterated by both Barack and Michelle Obama.
Sweeney, who made his first visit to the White House today, said it meant so much to hear the Obamas highlight the efforts of the military members in the room.
“There are not a whole lot of us doing this but the people who are doing these things are excelling,” said Sweeney, who hopes to defend Team USA’s gold medal at the next Paralympic Winter Games in South Korea in 2018. “Maybe there’s some military member sitting on the couch somewhere who hears this and thinks maybe they can do this, too.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.