With the calendar flipping to December, the world cup season is beginning for certain winter sports. U.S. Para Nordic skier Dan Cnossen is fully ready for the challenges to come, beginning with the first competition of the season in Lillehammer, Norway.
“I’m just excited to go to Norway to ski, because along with Sweden and Finland, it is the best place in our sport,” he said. “We haven’t been to Norway for a couple of years and Lillehammer is the site for next season’s world championships, so this will be a good preview of the area.”
It’s a long way from Cnossen’s hometown of Topeka, Kansas, to Scandinavia, and his journey from America’s heartland to becoming a Paralympic gold medalist was also a lengthy one.
Cnossen attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, after graduating from Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kansas, in 1998. He competed on the Naval Academy’s triathlon team, a collegiate club squad that also included Timothy O’Donnell, who finished second at the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii in October.
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 2002, Cnossen became a Lieutenant Commander and a Navy SEAL. He served combat deployments in the Middle East in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In September 2009, while serving as the platoon commander for SEAL Team One in Afghanistan, Cnossen lost both of his legs just above the knee after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
After regaining the ability to walk and run again through the use of prosthetics, Cnossen became involved in handcycling. During continuing rehabilitation at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2010, he was approached by a U.S. Paralympic liaison officer about attending a sports recruitment camp in San Diego.
A meeting with Team USA cross-country and biathlon coaches in San Diego led to Cnossen’s introduction to Nordic skiing through the use of a sit-ski apparatus at a camp in West Yellowstone, Montana, later that same year. He was immediately hooked.
“It was a unique chance for me to get in the woods. I liked — really liked — trail running when I had my legs before the injury,” he said. “Cross-country skiing was a way for me to get into the woods and be on trails in a way that was not otherwise feasible.
“It was the connection to nature that really got me into the sport.”
One big issue that American skiers of all types face is the relative lack of snow for much of the year. For a competitive Nordic skier like Cnossen, this necessitates the need for cross-training to keep fit during the off-season months.
At first, Cnossen fell back on a pair of fitness favorites in running and handcycling. However, while those training methods kept him fit cardiovascular-wise — and in the case of handcycling, worked well for upper-body strength — they fell short in delivering the total fitness he sought.
“I needed to do something that would provide specific strength,” he said. “After being exposed to adaptive surfing, I found that the paddling of surfing was really good for delivering the specific strength I needed as a sit-skier.”
However, as a resident of the northeast, Cnossen lived on the opposite side of the continent from most of the nation’s top surfing.
“It can be a bit frustrating living on the East Coast,” he said. “While the waves can be good, they just aren’t always there.”
A solution was delivered by an introduction to prone paddleboarding, where a person lays on the board and paddles rather than standing. It is a method that can be used by surfers to stay in shape — as well as, as Cnossen found, Para Nordic skiers.
“I was introduced to it by some friends from Rhode Island. It turns out there is a whole subculture with races,” he said. “The races are brutal, but the specific strength delivered is quite transferable to what is needed on snow.”
Prone paddleboarding in combination with running, handcycling and other assorted cross-training methods has proved to be an effective regimen to maintain optimal fitness during the non-skiing months. The added variety also serves to keep his body and mind fresh.
“By the end of the ski season, I am so ready to surf and prone paddle,” he said. “By the end of the summer, I’m really excited to be back on snow. It’s a really good dynamic that puts me in a good place both mentally and physically.”
It is hard to argue with the results. By 2014, Cnossen was competing in his first Paralympic Winter Games, finishing as high as sixth in the cross-country sprint in Sochi.
Four years later, he became the first American male and only second-ever American to win biathlon gold at either the Olympic or Paralympic Games when he accomplished the feat in the 7.5-kilometer at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. That biathlon gold highlighted a six-medal performance that included four silvers and a bronze.
“I think anybody looking at my career, it’s just a series of results with one big spike at the Paralympics,” he said of PyeongChang. “I did show up and had a once-in-a-lifetime performance — hopefully, it’s not just once in a lifetime though.”
One of challenges for Cnossen in this upcoming world cup season, as well as any prospective future world championship and Paralympic competitions, comes in the timing.
“It’s hard to time peak performances over a four-year cycle, or even within one season,” he said. “It’s difficult to be at your peak exactly when you want it.”
Cnossen said his development continues with every season and that with the help of dedicated coaches and staff he is learning how to be more consistent throughout the winter campaign.
“I had a good season last year, but there’s room for improvement this season,” he said. “For me, it is not as much about focusing on the end result but more about focusing on the process. The aftermath of a race is a by-product of those things that were focused on in the steps leading up to that race.”