© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Sports

After losing both legs, a Navy SEAL from Topeka became one of the world's best Paralympians

DanCnossenSittingBiathlete.JPG
Greg Echlin
/
KCUR
Cnossen is in the shooting range area of West Yellowstone, Montana, and prepares to hit the cross-country ski trails. At age 41, he's preparing for his third Winter Paralympics. In the 2018 Winter Paralympics, he won six medals, including one gold.

Retired Navy SEAL veteran Dan Cnossen will compete at the upcoming Winter Paralympics in Beijing in Nordic skiing events. Cnossen is arguably the world's best, earning six medals at the 2018 Winter Paralympics.

When you think of cross-country skiing, Topeka may not immediately come to mind — even though it’s flat, it doesn’t have quite enough snow. But it has given the world one of its best athletes in Paralympic cross-country skiing.

At the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Korea, Topeka native Dan Cnossen skied almost eight miles in one of his six races over a snow-covered course. It was a middle-distance sitting biathlon which combines skiing and shooting. Under any circumstances it would be an impressive feat, but it is even more so because Cnossen is without legs.

At certain points of the biathlon course, he stopped, plopped his body core on the shooting platform and aimed while on his elbows at a target about 32 feet away. The target was the size of a blueberry.

"For me, and I admit it's very self-focused, but it's about being part of the action," Cnossen shared.

The former Navy SEAL won six medals at the 2018 Winter Paralympics, including a gold for the sprint distance sitting biathlon — combining skiing and target shooting.

“I crossed the line, didn’t look up at the results on the Jumbotron that’s up there. I told myself mentally not to do that. It affected me negatively in 2014 (at the Sochi Winter Paralympics),” said Cnossen.

Then Cnossen was told by an official while taking off his timing chip that he had won. “It was shocking to me,” he said.

As he stood on the podium during the ceremony, he thought about what it all meant.

“Seeing the U.S. flag go up, that was a big moment for me to reflect upon this journey,” he said referencing the roadside bomb that claimed both legs in Afghanistan 13 years ago.

Where it all began

Alice Landers, Cnossen's mother, said, "Growing up on the farm he shot BB guns a lot, and he became pretty good."

Landers still lives on the family farm outside Topeka. She said Dan grew up playing baseball and soccer. Then knowing he was bound for the Naval Academy, he took up track at Shawnee Heights High School.

DanCnossenHouseFromNW.JPG
Greg Echlin
/
KCUR
When Dan Cnossen occasionally returns home to visit his mom at the limestone farmhouse that's been in the family since it was built in 1874 outside the Topeka city limits, he's guaranteed some good home-cooking.

"My calling as an athlete was not as a ball-scoring athlete.  It’s more as an endurance athlete."

It’s Cnossen’s ‘endurance’ that impressed his comrades during training as a Navy SEAL. Among them is former SEAL Adam LaReau.

LaReau recalled, "Whatever he puts his mind to, I’ve never met a more mentally tough person in my life than Dan Cnossen."

But Cnossen’s life changed in an instant.

"He got hit by a 30-pound bomb," said Kirk Bauer, who lost a leg in Vietnam as the result of hand grenade, and later became a downhill skier. "They call it an IED.  It’s anything but an improvised explosive.  It is a sophisticated device that literally is expected to blow you up. He should’ve died."

Bauer is retired as the executive director of Move United, previously known as Disabled Sports USA. Bauer says Move United is an organization that provides opportunities for amputees like Cnossen.

Bauer added, "He had a crisis.  When you lose both legs, you don’t know if you’re ever going to walk again, you don’t know if you’re ever going to do sports again, you don’t know if you’re ever going to get a job again.  You have all those things running around in your head."

Starting over

Once discharged from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Cnossen endured more than 35 surgeries over a two-year period, he looked for a sport that suited him and preferably different from what he played in high school.

"One of the things after my injury that was important for me was doing something new so that I didn’t have a barometer of my past former self to compare," Cnossen explained.

DanCnossenShooting.JPG
Greg Echlin
/
KCUR
Cnossen drops from his sitting position as a skier to his elbows in a shooting position to aim at five targets the size of a blueberry.

Cnossen, now 41, is in the final stages of training for the Winter Paralympics in China, which begin on March 4. Since it doesn’t snow often enough in Kansas, or even in Massachusetts where he now lives, Cnossen went to West Yellowstone, Montana, to train.

While Cnossen aimed at his targets, Bob Hayes, who lives in West Yellowstone, looked through a scope for a close-up view.

Hayes offered his critique. "That was a really good group, but you’re now right about a click."

Dan Cnossen can measure some of his life’s most crucial moments in clicks.

He can’t change what happened in Afghanistan, but for now, he’s focused on the Winter Paralympics. And when he wraps up his career on the snow, he has plans to work with a former Navy SEAL comrade Adam LaReau, who co-founded 02X, a company that works with first responders.

"He's had an impact on a lot of people's lives," LaReau stated. "He has already through everything that he's been doing, but when he gets in front of them (first responders) and talks about goal-setting, mental performance, resilience, bouncing back from challenges ... Dan is disciplined and dedicated."

This spring Cnossen may return to the family farm in Topeka for a visit, his mom said. It's been 24 years since he lived there, but it is still the place he credits with giving him the grit to overcome challenges he never expected.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make non-profit journalism available for everyone.