On Starting from Scratch

Dan Cnossen ’02 is a two-time Paralympian.

Dan Cnossen knew what it took to be among the very best. He’d been a competitive swimmer and runner. He was a Navy SEAL.

But in 2009, while serving as platoon commander for SEAL Team One in Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED. He lost both of his legs above the knee.

In a flash, he went from being one of the world’s fittest people to bedridden. “I wasn’t even able to get up and transfer to a wheelchair,” he recalled of the early days of his recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. “That was ground zero for me: zero mobility.”

He could have easily sunk into a depression. Instead, he refocused: getting up on prosthetics. Ditching the canes. Learning to run.

Eventually, he discovered adaptive cross-country skiing. “That really blew things open,” he said. “I was out in the woods, which I loved so much more than the roads and the city. It felt like so much less of a burden than daily living sometimes was,” he said.

He leaned on the skills that had made him successful in the past—physical strength, discipline and a deep appreciation of process—to improve his performance. Soon, he was among the country’s very best in the sport.

In 2014, he represented the United States at Sochi’s Paralympic Games in cross-country skiing and biathlon. Four years later, with a few more years of training under his belt, he didn’t just participate: he landed a gold, four silver and one bronze medal in in the PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games.

For Cnossen, even gold is not an endpoint: the journey and the growth are what continue to fuel him. “By no means have I mastered the sports of cross country skiing or biathlon,” he said. “There are a lifetime of subtle details that I can continue to improve on.”

Focus on the future: “When you’re in a situation where you’re going from being on top to starting new, it’s a remarkable chance to see progress. It’s hard not to focus on where you might have been before, but try to realize that you’re making real gains right now.”

Source: Shipmate: September 2018