As Kendall Gretsch heads into the heart of the 2019 Para Nordic skiing season, there’s no denying that things are different than they were a year ago.
At the start of 2018, Gretsch was a Paralympic hopeful, preparing for her debut at the highest level of competition in both sitting cross-country skiing and biathlon.
Now, she is a two-time Paralympic champion, and with her attention back to winter sports, the Downers Grove, Illinois, native is at the same time focused on making her first trip to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 in paratriathlon.
“I think it’s nice to have a little more confidence in myself and the knowledge that it is possible to perform well on a bigger stage, so that’s always nice to fall back on and to have that trust in yourself,” she said of now holding two Paralympic gold medals. “If you did it before there’s always a chance you can do it again and that’s always a nice feeling, but you can’t rely on that too much. You still have to put in the training and put in the work. Every day I’m trying to get better so it’s a balance. There is some pressure that comes with (winning gold medals) but there’s also being able to have that confidence that you can do it.”
Gretsch, who was born with spina bifida, said that last year’s success came as a surprise. Although she won three titles at last year’s U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Nationals in biathlon sprint, cross-country sprint and middle-distance cross-country, her focus going into PyeongChang was simply to race as best as she could, gain experience and enjoy her first trip to the Paralympic Winter Games.
“I really was just hoping maybe that I could medal in one event,” she said.
Her first race was the biathlon sprint and Gretsch not only medaled but won by 24 seconds over teammate and second-place finisher Oksana Masters. Although she didn’t know it when she crossed the line, Gretsch’s gold medal was the first ever in biathlon by an American athlete in Paralympic or Olympic history. It wasn’t until she was doing post-race interviews that she learned she’d made history.
The very next day she followed that up with a gold medal in 12-kilometer cross-country.
“The whole thing was just kind of surreal,” she said. “I had a bunch of family out there with me and some friends who came over. To share those races with family and friends and everyone from our team who was there helping, and all the coaches and stuff was a really cool experience.”
After returning to the U.S., her parents held a celebratory party at their house and within a week Gretsch was back to her day job at a software company. She also turned her attention toward paratriathlon.
With the endurance requirements of biathlon, cross-country and triathlon, training for her winter sports helps her summer sport and vice versa. There are other benefits to cross-training as well, she said.
“I think the endurance aspect is the biggest part of it, but there are other pieces where you can improve your skills,” she said. “For example, how you would approach a hill in skiing, where you have to shorten your cadence, is similar on the bike where you have to change gears. Mentally you can use those skills going from one to the other, and also just learning how your body responds to training or what works for you.”
Gretsch will join the USA Paratriathlon Residence Team living and training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the first time this year as she begins to shift her focus toward Tokyo.
Before that, however, she’ll first work toward defending her national titles at the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Nationals Thursday through Saturday in Craftsbury, Vermont, then focus on the remainder of the international Nordic season.
“We have three world cups plus world championships this year,” she said. “It’s a little bit of an off-year being after the Games and having fewer people competing, but I just want to try to build off the work I put in last season. I still feel pretty new to the sport so I’m trying to take all these races as learning experiences. There’s a lot you can learn by practicing and training but on some level, you just have to get into races and do them to get better.”
One more thing that’s changed in the last year, Gretsch said, is her mindset in terms of where sports and training fits into her life. Her goal was always to go to the Paralympic Games, she said, but now training and being an athlete is more than just one part of her life.
“It’s a main focus,” she said. “It’s a big goal for the next two years and then the next four for Beijing. The mentality going into all of that is different. Not that I wasn’t training seriously before, but now I’m putting more time and energy into training and just giving it everything I can.”