A lifelong athlete, Cnossen made the biggest impact in Nordic skiing, competing for Team USA in biathlon and cross-country skiing at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and various world cups.
Dan Cnossen first took up para-cycling as a way to boost his cross-country skiing career.
Now, following some early success in the sport, the 34-year-old admits the wheels inside have started turning a bit.
“Initially I was thinking (the cycling) could boost (the skiing),” Cnossen said, “but now I’m thinking maybe it would just be great for me to try and be a two-sport athlete.”
For Cnossen, who competed in six events spanning cross-country skiing and biathlon at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, challenge is certainly nothing new.
A lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, Cnossen was serving as the platoon commander for SEAL Team One in Afghanistan in September 2009 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device and lost both of his legs above the knee.
Though awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor from the Secretary of the Navy, the longtime athlete, who had competed on the Naval Academy’s triathlon club team, was determined to quickly get back in the game.
Following months of grueling rehabilitation at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Cnossen learned to walk with his new prosthetics. He marked the one-year anniversary of his accident by running a mile on the new limbs.
By late 2011, he was competing — and finishing — the New York City Marathon through a combination of hand-cycling and running. Soon after, he began training exclusively for cross-country skiing and biathlon while stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado.
His never-ending search for improvement led him to his latest twist.
“With my background in triathlon, I’ve always loved riding bicycles. I was really looking for a cross-training platform for cross-country skiing, to do in the summer,” Cnossen said. “The kneeler bike in handcycling is so similar to the double pulling that I do in cross-country skiing. So I thought this might not even just be cross training, but actually better than the summer training apparatus we use for the ski team (the mountain board).”
So far, he has competed in two U.S. events, most recently taking second place in the time trials and first place in the 42-kilometer road race (men’s H5 class) at the USA Cycling Para-cycling Road National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, over the July 4 weekend.
While cross-country skiing is primarily about technique, Cnossen said handcycling seems to be more about brute strength. For this rookie, that’s helped shorten the learning curve.
“Dan’s transition was particularly easy, just because Dan has this long history of development through various sports. For him, learning something new was no big deal,” said Mike Durner, an assistant coach for the U.S. Paralympics Cycling program. “The skiing provided a really good base of fitness for Dan. He has phenomenal potential already in handcycling.”
As he prepares to compete in his first international handcycling event — a world cup race July 25 in Spain — Cnossen said he simply hopes to soak up as much knowledge as possible, particularly in areas like switching gears and handling the bike around turns.
“I’m very honored (to be invited), but I’m also very realistic,” he said. “The cycling team has so many great athletes. They’re deep in each category, and they certainly do well internationally. I’m going to just try to be a sponge and observe as much as I can.”
He won’t be alone. A growing number of Cnossen’s fellow skiing teammates are now competing in both sports.
Sochi teammate Monica Bascio has done it for several years, while two other Paralympic skiing teammates, Oksana Masters and Beth Requist, also recently added the sport. Cnossen said that John Farra, the high performance director of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Team, has been “completely supportive” of adding cycling.
“And from a cycling perspective, they’re getting athletes that are already trained in a sport that transitions pretty well,” Cnossen said.
So far, much of his early cycling training has focused on basics, such as finding his optimal position on the bike. In the coming weeks, that focus will shift to becoming more competitive with the world’s elite, with an eye on the upcoming UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championships in Greenville, South Carolina.
“Once we really get a position that he’s comfortable producing power and that allows him to handle the machine really well, I think after that it will be a very fast learning curve,” Durner said.
Don’t expect Cnossen to give up skiing anytime soon. To this Topeka, Kansas, native, however, there’s something particularly appealing about the open road.
“It’s cooler because of the speed. You get more wind flow,” said Cnossen, who will crack 20 mph during a typical race. “On a flat or downhill, because we’re so low and we have three wheels, we’re right up there with able-bodied cyclists.”
Rich Scherr is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose articles have appeared frequently in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, as well as numerous other publications. He also serves as the editor of Potomac Tech Wire and Bay Area Tech Wire. Scherr is a freelance contributor to USParalympics.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.