Dan Cnossen (L) and Andy Soule (R) celebrate silver and bronze in the men's 12.5-kilometer biathlon on day four of the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 13 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
For Andy Soule and Dan Cnossen, there was no greater honor than to represent the United States as members of the Armed Forces. What came close, however, was the chance to wear the red, white and blue as Team USA athletes after injuries they sustained in the line of duty put them on the path to the Paralympic Winter Games.
Soule was a student at Texas A&M when the September 11 attacks drove him to enlist in the U.S. Army. Shortly after completing basic training, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was severely wounded by an IED blast. His injuries necessitated the amputation of both his legs above the knee, and he spent the next several months recuperating in an Army hospital in Texas.
It was then that he found adaptive sport: Soule took up handcycling to keep active and attended his first Nordic skiing recruitment camp in Sun Valley, Idaho.
From there, he was hooked.
“Paralympic sport was an instrumental part of my recovery from injury, starting with local Paralympic sport clubs in the San Antonio area while I was still a hospital inpatient,” Soule said. “I cannot emphasize enough how much it has meant to my recovery from injury and my new post-injury life to have Paralympic sport be a part of it.”
Cnossen’s path to the military, and to Paralympic sport, began in small-town Kansas, where he took up track and field in his final year of high school. He went on to compete for the Naval Academy before becoming a lieutenant commander of SEAL Team One.
With his platoon deployed to Afghanistan in September 2009, Cnossen stepped on an IED, suffering severe internal injuries and the loss of both legs above the knee.
He continued his career in the military while recovering and learned how to walk with his new prosthetics, but he never lost hope that he could one day be as physically active as he was before sustaining his injuries.
When he was approached by Paralympic Nordic skiing recruiters in San Diego, he got his chance to return to sport.
“At the time, I was still in the military recovering from my injuries, and getting on snow for the first time in a sit-ski in Montana was wonderful,” Cnossen said. “It got me back in the woods and deeper into nature … I felt like I was back in a military environment.
“My military background prepared me in the sense that it was what I craved most after my injury — feeling like I'm operational — and being a biathlete representing the U.S. has filled this desire.”
At that snow camp in West Yellowstone, Montana, Cnossen met Soule, who had already made Paralympic history by becoming the first U.S. athlete to win a biathlon medal — Olympic or Paralympic — at the Winter Games.
“That first biathlon medal was unexpected in many ways,” Soule, who earned bronze in his opening race at the Paralympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, recalled. “It was day with some difficult conditions and I think a lot of things just came together really well. I was fortunate to have such great coaching and support that year, and the result was something I’m very proud of.”
As members of U.S. Paralympics’ Nordic Skiing Team, Cnossen and Soule quickly rose through the ranks with the discipline and hard work they learned in the military, finding that those skills translated well to being full-time athletes.
The pair skied together in Sochi during the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, where they both came just shy of the podium: Cnossen, at his first Games, placed sixth in the cross-country sprint, while Soule finished in the top five in four different races.
Four years later, they showed the world what they could do in PyeongChang.
Cnossen had a breakout Games, collecting one gold, four silver and one bronze medal to become the winningest American Paralympian in South Korea. His teammate Soule added two more medals to his collection, including a cross-country sprint title that saw him power to the finish line from fourth to first place in the final 100 yards.
But, as Cnossen says, the medals come secondary to the physical recovery and mental reward they’ve received from adaptive skiing.
“When it all gets boiled down, I love cross-country skiing and being in nature,” Cnossen said. “My earlier mindset, thinking about how long a process it would be to achieve the kind of results every athlete wants, was all wrong.
“I began to focus just on the idea that I love being in the woods, feeling the glide on snow, and being in the intensity of a race pushing myself as hard as I can go, and so whatever results happen afterwards are really secondary to the way this sport has helped me recover from a serious injury.”
As the two veterans furthered their careers on and off the snow — Cnossen earned master’s degrees in public administration and theology from Harvard University — they also learned from and leaned on each other. Cnossen calls Soule a “trailblazer” for American biathlon, and Soule can’t say enough about Cnossen as an athlete.
They also credit the U.S. Olympic Committee for providing them with the opportunity to chase a new dream. The organization helps them manage the expenses they incur from ski camps, equipment, lodging and more, and donors fund a significant amount of their team budget.
“To someone thinking of donating to the USOC I would say [that] it is absolutely a worthy use of your resources,” Soule said. “It is more than just winning medals or supporting elite athletes. The USOC does amazing work, and sport has the power to bring people together in a way that nothing else really does.”
Sport brought Soule and Cnossen together, but it also showed them that there is life after injury — one that’s just as golden.
The USOC is proud to support athletes who served in the Armed Forces as they recover from injury, represent the United States and strive to achieve their Olympic and Paralympic dreams. Please consider giving in support of Paralympic athletes and veterans like Andy Soule and Dan Cnossen this Veterans Day, when every dollar you give will be matched up to $15,000. Click here to make your gift.