Kendall Gretsch competes in the women's cross-country 12-kilometer sitting event at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 11, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Kendall Gretsch can’t exactly say her results so far in PyeongChang have been unexpected, but that’s only because she truly didn’t know what to expect going into her very first Paralympic Winter Games.
Suffice it to say she’s happy with the two gold medals won in her first two events — 6-kilometer sitting biathlon and 12-kilometer sitting cross-country — that have made her one of the breakout stars of these Games.
“It’s just been pretty incredible,” she said by phone from South Korea on one of her training days. “The whole experience has been just so amazing.”
Even more amazing is that Gretsch, 25, from Downer’s Grove, Illinois, got serious about Nordic skiing just a few years ago with the specific goal of competing in PyeongChang. Biathlon sprint was her very first race of the Games, and it was not only the first gold of 2018 for Team USA but also the first gold medal ever won in biathlon by a U.S. Olympic or Paralympic athlete, male or female. Dan Cnossen would win the first men’s biathlon medal later that same day.
Because the races go off staggered, Gretsch said, she had to wait until everyone finished to find out she won. When the results came up, Gretsch had a time of 21:52.0. Teammate Oksana Masters, who is competing in her fourth Paralympic Games and fighting through an elbow injury, was the next-closest competitor with a 22:14.8.
“It was kind of unbelievable,” Gretsch said. “I was kind of speechless. I knew that if I had a good race and was able to have good shooting and ski fast that a medal was possible. It was a good feeling.”
Gretsch, who was born with spina bifida, began competing in triathlon while she was in college. An active child who competed in a number of sports growing up, Gretsch found success almost immediately. She went to the paratriathlon world championships for the first time in 2014, competing in the PT1 classification, won the gold and was named Female Paratriathlete of the Year by USA Triathlon. She then defended her world title in 2015 and again in 2016.
Gretsch dreamed of competing in the Paralympics, but those hopes were dashed when she learned her classification wasn’t going to be included at the 2016 Games in Rio.
Still determined to go to the Paralympics, she turned her focus toward Nordic skiing. She’d tried it “once or twice” right after college when she moved to Wisconsin and was looking for cross-training opportunities, and with her endurance background believed it might put her on the road to the Paralympics.
She was correct.
Gretsch swears it only seems as if she’s been able to find success immediately in not one but two sports — there’s a lot of work that goes into it, she promises — but she quickly found herself improving. She decided to take four months off this winter from her job handling technical support for a healthcare software company in Madison, Wisconsin, and in January at the 2018 World Para Nordic Skiing NorAm & U.S. Paralympics Sit Ski Nationals won a trio of gold medals in biathlon, cross-country sprint and middle-distance cross-country.
Gretsch said training with teammates such as Masters, who missed nationals due to illness, helped her tremendously.
“That was such a big decision for me going into this winter,” she said of taking leave from work and heading to Bozeman, Montana, with the rest of the national team. “It’s just so helpful to be skiing with them every day. You do pick up little things like how they manage corners or how they tackle hills. You’re training with the best every day and we’re all kind of pushing each other. It was definitely invaluable being able to have this winter with them.”
Gretsch’s second gold medal and first in cross-country came the day after winning gold in biathlon, which she said is her favorite event because of the added challenge of shooting and the management that comes with combining that element with racing.
Her plan is to compete in all six scheduled events in PyeongChang with the possibility of taking part in some of the relays as well. She said that’s subject to change, however, depending on how the remaining races go and how she’s feeling.
How long a break she’ll take after the Paralympics before she resumes her other athletic passion depends on what type of news she gets about paratriathlon in Tokyo 2020.
“If my class is in then I’ll definitely take a little faster of a path back,” she said. “I took last season off (from triathlon) so I’ll have to do more races to earn points and get back up in the rankings. If it’s not (in the 2020 Paralympics) then I think I’ll take a little bit longer of a break.”