Dan Cnossen: On the fast track

By Nick Kiger | March 09, 2014, 12:30 a.m. (ET)
Dan Cnossen
Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen is making his Paralympic Winter Games debut in Sochi, Russia.

Saying Lt. Commander Dan Cnossen’s (Topeka, Kan.) journey to becoming an elite Paralympic Nordic athlete has happened quickly is a complete understatement.

That’s because his fast rise through the sport has been downright supersonic.

After trying cross country skiing for the first time just over three years ago, Cnossen, who is a sit-skier, will soon be competing in his first Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where he will race in both cross country and biathlon.

Not only is he on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team after just three years in the sport, he is considered one of Team USA’s best chances for a Nordic skiing medal.

Although many refer to him as a natural in the sport and an all-around talented athlete, Cnossen doesn’t necessarily agree, instead attributing much of his success thus far to his work ethic.

“I do not think that I am gifted, but I if I enjoy something, I will definitely work really hard at it,” he said.

Cnossen has certainly worked hard to get to this position.

Just five years ago, while serving as the Platoon Commander for SEAL Team One in Afghanistan, Cnossen’s life changed forever after stepping on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Cnossen, a 2002 Naval Academy graduate and the only active duty member of the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team, lost both his legs as a result of the accident, but it did not slow him.

To aid in his recovery, Cnossen immediately turned to sport, and as he had done throughout his life, he went all in.

One year after his accident, Cnossen, who was a member of the triathlon club at the Naval Academy, ran his first mile on his new prosthetic legs and he never looked back.

Cnossen stayed active by running and swimming, but that all changed after he was eventually introduced to cross-country skiing. It did not take long before he was hooked, but as he also quickly found out, it was a much more challenging sport than any he had ever participated in before.

“I have an endurance background, but this is a whole new game,” Cnossen admitted. “The upper body is so important in this sport, so that has been a transition.”

Cnossen’s transition to Nordic did not take long, as he officially joined the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing program in 2010. In 2011, Cnossen’s career took another huge step forward when was transferred to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., home of the United States Olympic Committee and U.S. Paralympics.

“Once I moved out to Colorado, things really began to change quickly because I could train full time at altitude,” he said.

He eventually moved to the mountain town of Fraser, Colo., where he was able to focus exclusively on Nordic skiing under the instruction of Shawn Scholl at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, a Paralympic Sport Club in nearby Winter Park, Colo. This quickly paid dividends for Cnossen. He made his international debut in 2012 and followed it up with a breakout year in 2013.

At the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., Cnossen earned a silver medal in the 10-kilometer event, his first medal in a World Cup event, and the first podium for a U.S. athlete in several years. He went on to take bronze in the 15-kilometer race, as well as two more medals in the biathlon.

More recently, Cnossen performed well at the 2014 U.S. Paralympic National Championships, claiming three first place finishes. Unfortunately, that performance was overshadowed by disappointing results at the IPC Biathlon World Cup Final in Oberried, Germany, where he failed to finish higher than 11th in any event.

True to his nature, however, Cnossen’s performance in Germany has only pushed him to work harder heading into the Winter Games.

“My results this year haven’t been what I was expecting, but I know I am a faster skier, I know my equipment is better and I know my technique is better,” noted Cnossen. “I am really excited for Sochi, just to see where I am; right now I am skiing as fast as I ever have.”

Cnossen will have every opportunity to show what he is made of in Sochi as he plans to compete in every cross country and biathlon event at the Games. And while medaling in any of the competitions would validate all of the hard work he has put in over the last three years, Cnossen said that it is not the sole focus of his Paralympic Winter Games debut.

“I do not have any real expectations other than to do the best that I can do,” he said. “I am proud to be on active duty competing in the Paralympics, and I am honored to represent the Navy and where I come from. I am just going to go as hard as I can and best represent Team USA.”