Kendall Gretsch competes at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 17, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
It is always competition season for Kendall Gretsch.
When it is summer, she is an elite paratriathlete. In the winter, she hits the slopes, where she has won two Paralympic gold medals. So the last 12 months have been difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down competition in both of her sports.
But now, as this winter is in its waning weeks, the 28-year-old is ramping up for the World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in Slovenia. It is part of an abbreviated world cup season that starts and concludes this month.
“It’s kind of a weird spot to be in where it’s March and it’s your first time racing in a world cup for the season,” said Gretsch, who last raced in February 2020 in Finsterau, Germany. “So, yeah, I think there’s always kind of a little bit of nerves and maybe some cobwebs to dust off.”
The Illinois native, born with spina bifida, took advantage of the lack of competition to train in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she lives. Gretsch focused on triathlon training from March to mid-November, before shifting to cross-country skiing. She also competes in the biathlon and she keeps her shooting eye sharp year-round, which was a “little bit tricky” with most ranges shut down due to the pandemic.
“It’s been good, I think,” Gretsch said. “The one positive thing I think a lot of athletes are finding out about not traveling is you can be pretty consistent in your training. You don’t have to worry about flying across to Europe every couple of weeks and dealing with jet lag and the kind of stress that comes with travel.
“I would say that we’ve definitely had some really solid consistent time on snow this winter. But also, you know some challenges with our training terms of just like gym access — we decided that we weren’t going to be using the gym facility that we normally use — or the indoor shooting range that we go to for biathlon practice. So definitely some changes as well where you’re not doing that so you’re trying to do strength training as much as you can out of your home.”
Eventually, her winter training took her and other U.S. teammates to Bozeman, Montana. Shortly after arriving in Montana, the competition schedule was altered with February’s world championships in Lillehammer, Norway, canceled.
Still the group of athletes, male and female, trained together and staged races as attention turned to the world cup circuit. Joining the Americans in Montana were the teams from Great Britain and Brazil as they came to the U.S. for training and the race simulations.
“That definitely added to the competitive level,” Gretsch said. “You try to put yourself in the mindset like, ‘This is a competition and race,’ but it obviously does feel a little bit different. We’re at the place where we ski every single day so there’s just a level of familiarity that it’s hard to kind of transport yourself in that mindset.”
The next 12 months figure to be the most impactful of Gretsch’s career. With the pandemic pushing the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 to this summer and the regularly scheduled Winter Games in Beijing in March 2022, Gretsch will participate in two Paralympic Games — and the qualifying that goes along with them — in seven months.
Gretsch said she didn’t really consider focusing on one over the other. That just isn’t her style.
“The plan is still to do both and do the races that I was planning to for both,” Gretsch said. “But it does complicate things, being more condensed. I think there’s still a lot of questions around what the racing season is going to look like this coming spring and summer. I think it’s just kind of being open and flexible and being ready to race whenever the opportunity comes. You can’t really plan too concretely on anything really at this point.”
From where she was a year ago, having a short world cup season before transitioning to paratriathlon for Tokyo and then back to skiing for Beijing is a welcome change. It also draws some interesting questions.
“It’s kind of funny,” Gretsch said, “because talking to people, sometimes it seems like they assume, ‘Oh, do you think Tokyo is going to happen?’ and, ‘Are you still training?’ It’s kind of a funny question to me because I have no idea if it’s going to happen. I hope it does, but I’m definitely still training. You kind of have to just assume that it’s happening and train like it’s happening.”