Navy SEAL officer. Olympic athlete. Harvard grad school student. Just a few activities that demonstrate the breadth of Dan Cnossen’s abilities and interests. Dan Cnossen grew up in Kansas, graduated from the United States Naval Academy, and was deployed in Afghanistan in 2009 when an explosive device cost him both his legs, amputated just above the knee. Determined to come back from this injury and progress daily, he ran a mile exactly a year after he was injured. He then picked up cross country skiing and has been competing in that discipline and biathlon since 2011. Last year, Dan began his master’s program at Harvard graduate school, currently enrolled in the John F. Kennedy School of Government working towards a degree in public administration. This program will be completed at the end of next year, the same year the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games are taking place in Pyeong Chang, South Korea.
Dan spent his second consecutive weekend at The Craftsbury Outdoor Center earlier this winter, after competing in the Craftsbury Marathon and placing 2nd in the 12k race the week prior. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about his goals, ideas, and beliefs. We also discussed how places like the COC can accommodate adaptive skiers and make the training facilities the best for all. I learned a lot about Paralympic skiing, adaptive sports in general, was certainly inspired by Dan’s attitude and motivation, but it was equally great to chat as athletes and competitors.
I am a full time cross country skier, a professional. To reach this level, I’ve had to be diligent in my training, my nutrition, my recovery – and still have to dial these in further to continue to progress. I have to be competitive and motivated every single day to reach my goals. I have to target my weaknesses and work to improve them. And while it can be hard to explain, yes, even full-time training sometimes gets a bit boring, and I have to find ways to remain engaged, happy and healthy. It was great to swap ideas on all these topics with Dan, and learn how he’s approaching the same training stresses. There is nothing that separates what he does and what I do, except that he does it sitting down.
The first time Dan tried a sit ski, he had a “miserable” experience. The technique and strength required to move your body around on skis, while sitting in a chair, is quite impressive, and the balance sensations are unlike anything one would have tried before. But Dan knew that it would be worth it, and that eventually, with time and dedication to a training program, he would figure it out and succeed. Well succeed he did. Just last year, he placed 5th, 6th, and 7th at the IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships. And in the 2014 Paralympic Winter games he placed 6th and had 4 other top 15 finishes. In that same year, he also claimed three first-place finishes at the US Paralympic Nordic Skiing National Championships. I asked Dan what his goals are for the next couple of seasons, and what he views as his most impressive results. His answer? “I don’t like to think about the results. I just want to train to the best of my ability, stay happy and healthy, and control what I can control.”
In fact, realizing that he doesn’t care about results is what he believes is his greatest success. It’s about being in the “zone” during the race and skiing hard. Getting too caught up in the results causes an increased focus on what others are doing instead of what is most important for him. I like it: concentrating my energy on everything that I can do to be the best skier, and not worrying myself with others, the weather, the course, etc. Instead, treat every race as an individual time trial, and likely the results will work them self out.
While Dan competes in both skiing and biathlon, his primary focus is on cross-country skiing. Most Paralympic Nordic skiers compete in both biathlon and cross-country due to their immense similarities. But it does take a huge amount of extra time and focus to learn how to shoot and be competitive in a race, so for the sake of already limited time, Dan finds it easier to just focus on training for skiing. There are four different events that Paralympic skiers compete in: a ski sprint, multiple individual biathlon races, and multiple individual cross-country distance races ranging from 5k – 20k. The cross-country 10K is his favorite due to the longer distance and endurance required. “It’s harder to train for sprints, and there is so much unknown; I prefer the distance endurance based races.”
In Para Nordic skiing, there are 3 different categories of racers: standing, sitting, and visual impairment. There are then subcategories for many of these. For instance, in the sitting category, there are a range of levels depending on how much “trunk control” one has, that is at what level the individual doesn’t have use of their legs and how much core there are able to activate. Standing and visual impairment categories are also subdivided. Depending on what level one is in, there are percentage time deductions.
This is a topic in the world or para skiing that can be extremely controversial. In a sprint race, for instance, a sitting competitor without much core will not be at as much of a disadvantage due to the very short course. Then that individual’s time deduction may make it harder for someone like Dan, with no time deductions, to compete against. However, the rules are set to try and make it fair for everyone, and consider all sides, which will inevitably lead to some controversial opinions. Kind of like the 83% pole height rule in cross country skiing classic races. (I asked Dan about this, and while Para skiing doesn’t have an equivalent rule, he said that having longer poles while sitting down, isn’t going to help you at all.)
Skiing is a difficult task to master. Doing it in a sit ski is even harder. It’s a movement that is very unique, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from trying it out. “Sit skiing is an amazing way for impaired individuals to get outside in the winter” Dan tells me. Running, or even just going somewhere in a wheelchair is extremely difficult in the snow. And being able to ski is a cool experience and achievement. When I asked Dan what advice he may have for someone just starting to sit ski he said that “sticking with it, staying positive, and knowing that the body will adapt quickly” is important. The reward once achieved is so much greater than that of anyone learning to ski fully body abled, because the obstacles overcome to get there were that much harder. And like cross country skiing, Para skiing can be a lifelong sport, something that Craftsbury Outdoor Center greatly values. He believes that after 2-3 years one should start to feel very comfortable sit skiing, and that trying to connect with others is helpful. There are more and more places starting to pop up as centers for all skiers, and some teams starting to integrate full body abled athletes and Parathletes. One such place exists in Winter Park, CO.
There are things that places like the Craftsbury Outdoor Center can do to make sure the facilities accommodate anyone who wants to get on the snow. One of the most important things being the accessibility to skiing. “The Center has been super helpful in allowing me to store my sit ski in the fitness center so it’s right next to the trials, and then I can leave my stuff on the deck which is also very convenient.” Things like ramps to and from the dining hall, fitness center, and cabins would be a nice added convenience for those that are in wheelchairs. Bathrooms and showers should also take special consideration when designing. More space and accessibility would make them more functional for individuals in wheelchairs. As far as a training facility goes, Dan believes Craftsbury has everything he needs. The food, skiing, and weight training are all in the same location, and all elite level quality. Something that I couldn’t agree more with. This is by far the best place I have ever encountered for full time training. And it benefits those that are not elite athletes as well! With “amazing food, cozy accommodations, and fantastic grooming”, Craftsbury is a great place for anyone to visit.
Like most athletes find, having something else to focus on during the day aside from training and sport, is a helpful and constructive way to pass the time and stay motivated. Lots of people turn to school. Dan found that he needed something else to do aside from training and decided that going to grad school would be perfect. He is now in a three year program at Harvard and lives and trains in Boston during the school year. He has set up his schedule so he only has class Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then can have long weekends to focus on training, often times somewhere besides Boston/Cambridge. While school is nice because of the mental stimulation, it’s also difficult because you don’t necessarily have a team, or the fact that you are an athlete as an excuse. Not that he needs excuses, but sometimes it’s difficult for professors and other classmates to understand the demands of a full time athlete.
For the rest of this season, Dan is focusing on school and training. Besides the pre-Olympic World Cups later this year, every Tuesday night he is participating in the weekly race series hosted in Boston around the Leo Jay Martin golf course (Weston Ski Track) there. He enjoys mixing it up with both skate and classic skiers there. Classic races are nice because he is more similar in time to them for more comparable competition, but skate races have their benefit as the larger personal space bubble gives him more practice for close proximity to other skiers and maneuverability. And when school is over, it will be time to start cross training. Dan’s favorites include strength training, running, and surfing. The upper body movement are essentially the same which make it a great way to practice, with the added benefit of extra balance. He will spend most of the summer in Hawaii and Indonesia. If my training could correlate that closely with surfing, I don’t think I would mind spending some time on the beach.
Dan’s primary focus thru all of this is his strength to weight ratio. Like skiing, and most endurance sports, one needs to be strong enough to get their body around a course, so having a strong but lean body is important. It’s a hard balance to achieve, but something that Dan believes he has finally started to master.
After talking with Dan for a while, I asked if I could follow him around skiing and get some video. We cruised around the flats and gradual uphills for a bit, I told him about the Green Racing Project’s max speed contest that we have every day, and he immediately was down to participate. So we went down Kirby’s together and I was more than impressed with how fast he was able to go, and how easily he could navigate the corners without being able to step around, and push off one foot. Check it out for yourself! We hit a max speed of just over 40km/hr (that’s pretty fast…).
I really enjoyed hanging out with Dan for a day, and then seeing him out on the trails multiple times after that. Spending time talking to another athlete with a slightly different perspective is always eye opening, humbling, and motivating. I think I can speak for everyone at Craftsbury in wishing him the best of luck this next season. We look forward to cheering him on at the 2018 Games!