Within the last decade, there’s been a surge of powerful women competing on U.S. Paralympic national teams in both a summer and winter sport.
There’s Allison Jones, an eight-time Paralympian and eight-time Paralympic medalist who’s competed in alpine skiing and cycling.
There’s Tatyana McFadden, a five-time Paralympian and 17-time Paralympic medalist who’s competed in track and field and Nordic skiing.
There’s Alana Nichols, a four-time Paralympian and six-time Paralympic medalist who’s competed in alpine skiing, wheelchair basketball and paracanoe.
There’s Monica Bascio, a four-time Paralympian and two-time Paralympic medalist who’s competed in Nordic skiing and cycling.
There’s Oksana Masters, a three-time Paralympian and three-time Paralympic medalist who’s competed in Nordic skiing, cycling and rowing.
And now, 27-year-old Kendall Gretsch — a former ESPY nominee and two-time world champion triathlete turned Nordic skiing Paralympic hopeful — could be putting herself on track as the next to join them.
When the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing Team is named for the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 at the end of January, Gretsch is expected to claim one of the three spots available for U.S. women.
After respectable finishes at December’s world cup in Canmore, Alberta, she returned stateside to take all three gold medals available at the 2018 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Nationals, winning the top prize in the women’s biathlon sprint, cross-country sprint and cross-country mid-distance events.
While her biggest rival, two-time Nordic skiing Paralympic medalist and four-time reigning world champion Masters, sat out sick at nationals, Gretsch still skied her way to the top of the podium, experiencing that championship feeling in a winter sport for the first time.
She’s now headed to Oberried, Germany, for the next world cup stop, and her last event prior to the announcement of the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Team.
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Sound exhausting? It can be, but Gretsch still believes she’ll be able to keep up with all the other dual-sport athletes out there on the trails and slopes thanks to her year-round cross-training.
“It’s really good cross-training to stay fit during the offseason,” Gretsch said of why so many U.S. women are pursuing two Paralympic sports. “It’s a big factor to help keep up your fitness in another sport, and it works well for everyone. We’re just all so competitive, too, so that helps.”
Born with spina bifida, Gretsch grew up with weaker muscle control in her legs and used crutches to move around. She was a very active child, though, with swimming as her main sport.
During the summer after her sophomore year at Washington University, Gretsch was introduced to paratriathlon by Dare2Tri, a Paralympic Sport Club co-started by Paralympian Melissa Stockwell in her native Chicagoland.
She quickly got hooked on the sport, first competing in local races and then going on to win back-to-back world championships in the PT1 class on the international stage, all while studying biomedical engineering at Washington University. In 2014, she was named the Female Paratriathlete of the Year by USA Triathlon.
Shortly after she graduated from college and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to work in technical support for Epic Systems, an electronic health records company, Gretsch learned that the PT1 class would not be included in the 2016 Paralympic program. That’s when she struck up conversations with various adaptive sport coaches about Nordic skiing. By the winter of 2015, she found herself pushing on the snow and falling in love with a whole new sport.
Her athletic abilities translated directly to the snow, and with more time devoted to weightlifting in the gym, she was quickly able to make the U.S. national team by the 2016-17 season.
The toughest part of the transition was learning to stop on her skis and shoot for the biathlon competitions.
“That’s definitely a new piece of it for sure,” she said. “I think that’s been one of the more difficult things to learn, balancing the shooting with the skiing.”
On snow, Gretsch is surrounded by teammates who have all represented Team USA in Nordic skiing at the Paralympics before, including notables such as Masters, Paralympian Dan Cnossen, two-time Paralympian Andy Soule and three-time Paralympian Aaron Pike.
“Everyone on the national team has been extremely helpful as I’ve been trying to pick up the sport quickly,” said Gretsch. “Oksana, especially, has definitely been really nice to me this winter. Being able to just ski with her every single day and pick up small things from her and get tips from her has really been beneficial for me.”
Having taken a four-month leave of absence from her job in Madison, Gretsch is putting 100 percent of her focus the next two months on competing with the world’s best in cross-country skiing and biathlon.
“I just want to make it to South Korea and not put too much pressure on myself for these Games, and then looking forward, I would love to keep doing both Nordic skiing and triathlon,” she said.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.