Dan Cnossen celebrates at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 3, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Hell Week comes early on in Navy SEAL training, and the name probably isn’t strong enough to accurately describe the experience.
Trainees are allowed almost no sleep, the exercises and physical tests are brutal and exhausting, and it’s designed to weed out the people who aren’t going to succeed as SEALs so the rest can get on with it.
It was early on in Hell Week that Dan Cnossen thought he might not make it through.
“Right off the bat you have three back-to-back-to-back sleepless nights,” said Cnossen, 39. “That first night you still have your wits about you and you can still register pain and I just, I was in a bad situation. I was under this really heavy telephone pole log and to me it just seemed like this week was going to be almost impossible. My long-term thoughts were weighing me down, frustration was setting in and weighing me down and it was more physical pain than I’d ever been in. But I learned a valuable lesson that the best way to get through a hard situation is just to focus on what action you need to do right now. I didn’t need to think about Wednesday and how I was going to do three sleepless nights. I just needed to do two simple things under this pole: hold it up with my arms and advance it forward with my legs.”
Little did he know that focusing on the immediate task at hand would not only get him through SEAL training but also help him recover from the massive injuries suffered when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving as platoon commander for SEAL Team ONE in Afghanistan in September 2009. Cnossen lost both legs just above the knee, and in the years since has become one of the top Para Nordic skiers in the world, with six Paralympic medals and two world championship medals.
Immediately after the injury, however, Cnossen just wanted to be able to run and enjoy being outside again.
Although he played sports growing up, Cnossen said, he wasn’t a standout athlete or particularly talented. He did make the triathlon team at the U.S. Naval Academy but said he was a “mediocre” triathlete who was not a strong swimmer and had to work hard throughout his time there to be up to snuff for SEAL training.
But he loved running, especially trail running. He wanted to compete again after the injury, so he thought that Para track and field would be a great fit until he learned that those opportunities are for shorter distances and his ideal race is a 5K.
It was through a liaison at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was doing physical therapy, that he was connected with a U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing coach and went to a camp in Montana in late 2010.
“It was dumping snow and I got on the sit ski, and I wasn’t totally keen on doing an upper body sport, but I got in the woods and it was awesome to be back in nature again,” he said. “I realized this was a really neat thing to do and it was something I never did before, therefore I didn’t have any negative feelings attached to it. It was new and exciting, and I could reconnect with nature. I was still doing citizen 5K running races but in the winter, I could have a few months out of the year to go in the woods and cover 20 to 30K through my own power.”
Cnossen made his first Paralympic team in 2014 and had two top-10 finishes in five events but said at the time he was still active duty in the military and put too much pressure on himself. He was still a newer athlete and had the SEAL mentality when it came to training: if he wasn’t completely and utterly exhausted at the end of the day it meant he hadn’t worked hard enough.
With time, he came to understand the importance of sticking to a plan designed for peak performance in sport. When the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 came around, he was in grad school, well-rested and simply looking to fulfill his potential.
“I was looking at it one race at a time, and if that race went poorly then when it was over, I’d have another race to focus on,” he said.
Except nothing went poorly. Just the opposite. Cnossen reached the podium in every event he entered, winning gold in the 7.5-kilometer biathlon, silver in the 12.5K biathlon, 15K cross-country, 15K biathlon and 7.5K cross-country, and bronze in the cross-country sprint.
“I think I had medaled at world cups prior, but I certainly had never had any performances like that,” he said. “And subsequently haven’t had any performances like that.”
This season was a bit odd for everyone, but especially winter athletes, Cnossen said. One of the highlights was having a world cup sprint cross-country race in Dresden, Germany, that ran in conjunction with a FIS world cup race for able-bodied athletes, but they had several races shortened or rearranged because of lack of snow. Nonetheless, Cnossen won the national championship in the middle-distance cross-country, cross-country sprint and biathlon sprint races in Midway, Utah, and took world cup gold in biathlon relay and silver in the cross-country short-distance and biathlon sprint races in Altenberg and Dresden. He was in Sweden for the Para Biathlon World Championships in mid-March when that event was canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
Back in the States, Cnossen hoped for a little more time on the snow but now that will have to wait until next year.
“I came back to New England and thought I would go someplace I hadn’t been before and started the drive up but got a call from the hotel that all the restaurants were shutting down so I turned around and came back home,” he said. “It just wasn’t in the cards. But it keeps me excited for when I am on snow next, whenever that may be.”