Originally published in Shipmate, United States Naval Academy Alumni Association magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2014 issue
Lieutenant Commander Dan Cnossen has never met an obstacle he couldn’t overcome.
When Cnossen accepted his offer to attend the United States Naval Academy in 1998, he didn’t know how to swim.
That limitation didn’t stop the driven plebe from setting his sights on becoming a Navy SEAL. Cnossen believed he could learn how to swim if he put the work in – and that he did.
In 2009, seven years after his graduation from the USNA, Cnossen had risen to the rank of platoon commander for SEAL Team One in Afghanistan in the fourth combat deployment of his career. Just 36 hours into his assignment, Cnossen stepped on an improvised explosive device, causing him to lose both legs just above the knee.
But just as he didn’t allow an inability to swim hold him back from his SEAL dreams, Cnossen didn’t let his injury force him into a sedentary life. The SEAL underwent rehabilitation at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where he learned to walk with prosthetics. He was awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with V (for valor) from the Secretary of the Navy for his service in combat.
Cnossen wasn’t sure what his options would be for physical activity following his injuries; what he did know was that he wouldn’t be sitting around for long. He began working with the Paralympic Military Program, which provides post-rehabilitation support, mentoring and adaptive sports training for injured service members. Through that experience, Cnossen realized he could not just adapt to, but excel in his new condition.
“I would have had a very, very hard time coming out of Walter Reed and going into a sedentary life,” Cnossen said. “If the Paralympic program didn’t exist, I really don’t know where I’d be right now or what I’d be doing.”
As Cnossen redeveloped his strength and became comfortable on prosthetics, the former triathlete began running and swimming again, even capturing four medals – including three golds – at the 2011 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte.
Then, Cnossen learned to use a sit-ski. He hadn’t known much about Nordic skiing prior to his injury. Once again, though, he didn’t let lack of experience faze him.
“Given that I was going to be in the sitting class, I imagined that if someone should have a background in cross-country skiing, it wouldn’t be as a sitting athlete,” Cnossen said. “So what I presumed was that nobody really started out the first years of their lives doing this, and in that regard I would be no different. I was pretty confident in my athletic background and capability.”
Cnossen spoke with his chain of command and was approved to stay on active duty with the Navy while competing on the international racing circuit for adaptive cross-country skiing and biathlon. In his first season of competition, Cnossen notched a silver medal at the International Paralympic Committee World Cup in Cable, Wis., and a 6th-place finish at the IPC Cross-Country Skiing World Championships in Sweden. His results were strong enough to earn him a spot on the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team.
Cnossen then went on to earn three national cross-country skiing titles and a second-place finish in the biathlon at the 2013 U.S. Nordic Adaptive National Championships in Midway, Utah.
Now, he is a top hopeful for Team USA in both Nordic skiing disciplines for the upcoming Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. The Paralympic Team that will compete in Sochi will be named in early 2014.
“I could make a pretty logical assumption that I’ll make the team to go to Sochi, but I don’t know,” Cnossen said.
Since joining the Paralympic Military Program in August 2011, Cnossen has been living and training full-time in Fort Carson, Colo. His training is largely self-driven, though the National Team comes together for a training camp for about 10 days each month.
The National Team has a large contingent of military veterans, something Cnossen said has aided in his positive attitude during recovery and his continued motivation to succeed. In addition, Cnossen said his experiences as a student at the Naval Academy and as a member of the military have prepared him well for the rigors of an athletic career.
“I think cross-country skiing and biathlon are two sports which require a good amount of mental training, not just on the day of the race, but before,” Cnossen said. “There are days when I have to leave my legs in the snow, and I come back and they’re caked in snow, and the prosthetic fluid isn’t really working, and my hands are freezing. But the toughness to push through it? My military background has given me that.”
Though Cnossen’s biggest goal is to be on the roster to Sochi, he knows the real reward will have been the journey to get there.
“I used to think, ‘I’m hospital-bed bound.’ Then I started realizing that I still have a pretty capable body,” Cnossen said. “I’m not too limited, and there are these prosthetics, and who knows what they can do? I decided to focus more on the physical side of my development, and I’ve learned a lot about myself through the process.”
The 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are set for March 7-16 in Sochi, Russia. The Paralympics will be broadcast on NBC and NBC Sports Network, receiving an unprecedented 50 hours of coverage.