Dan Cnossen: Navy Seal Turned Paralympic Biathlon Champion

Growing up on a fifth generation family farm in Topeka, Kansas was a long ways from the Paralympic ski tracks of PyeongChang. In 2018, Dan Cnossen became the first biathlete to win a Paralympic gold medal, earning a gold, four silver and a bronze in biathlon and cross country. Cnossen's story is remarkable - a decorated war veteran who lost both legs above the knee on a 2009 Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan. A year later, he was on cross country skis at West Yellowstone, Montana. Heartbeat explores his life, motivations and resiliency in an emotional hour long interview with Dan Cnossen.

Growing up on a fifth generation family farm in Topeka, Kansas was a long ways from the Paralympic ski tracks of PyeongChang. In 2018, Dan Cnossen became the first biathlete to win a Paralympic gold medal, earning a gold, four silver and a bronze in biathlon and cross country. Cnossen's story is remarkable - a decorated war veteran who lost both legs above the knee on a 2009 Navy Seal mission in Afghanistan. A year later, he was on cross country skis at West Yellowstone, Montana. Heartbeat explores his life, motivations and resiliency in an emotional hour long interview with Dan Cnossen.


Heartbeat Ep 3 - Dan Cnossen

Tom Kelly: [00:00:18] Biathlon is a unique Olympic and Paralympic event. It challenges participants with opposing athletic endeavors in a singular competition. It [00:00:30] combines the heart pumping Arabic aspects of cross-country skiing match with the intense focus of precision marksmanship. Two diametrically opposing forces testing every ounce of physical and mental strength of the athletes. Welcome to Heartbeat. The U.S. biathlon podcast. I'm your host, Tom Kelly, and I'm proud to bring you regular insights into this fascinating sport. Today's guest on Heartbeat is an amazing athlete and a remarkable American. Dan [00:01:00] Cnossen grew up on a farm outside Topeka, Kansas, an unlikely environment for a cross-country skier. In 2009, Lieutenant Commander Dan Cnossen, a leader of Navy SEAL Team One, lost both his legs in Afghanistan when he stepped on a mine. Undaunted, he found a pathway in sport from a hospital bed in Walter Reed Medical Center to the tracks and shooting ranges of Sochi and Pyeongchang. He became one of the most decorated stars of Paralympic sport, [00:01:30] winning six medals in South Korea, including a gold the first ever by a U.S. by athlete. And Dan, it's an honor to have you join us on Heartbeat, the U.S. biathlon podcast.
Dan Cnossen: [00:01:41] Thanks for having me, Tom. I'm looking forward to our talk today.
Tom Kelly: [00:01:45] So where are you coming to us from today, Dan?
Dan Cnossen: [00:01:48] Coming to you from Natick, Massachusetts, a suburb just west of Boston.
Tom Kelly: [00:01:52] A beautiful place. Is that your training base?
Dan Cnossen: [00:01:56] Yes, it is. For most of the year, minus the time that I'm away for [00:02:00] camps on snow or the occasional surf trip. Not happening this time of year. Right now, the coronavirus and everything going on.
Tom Kelly: [00:02:09] I want to get into talking surf a little bit later, but I know all of us are in kind of the same boat right now with Corona virus having dictated our life. And for athletes training and and your goal setting. What have you been doing over the last few months in Natick, Massachusetts?
Dan Cnossen: [00:02:27] Well, you know, we came back from our [00:02:30] world championships, which was prematurely canceled before the first race even began. This was going to be an Östersund Sweden and this was in early March. We came back, I believe, on March 12th. And and then since then, I've been readjusting. I'm thinking that it's not at all really appropriate to be complaining about my situation, cause I'm in a very fortunate situation where I can stay healthy and still get my workout worn outside. And a lot of people are in situations like that. So for the most part, I've been following [00:03:00] my training plan, not really going to the gym because gyms haven't been open yet, but that's OK. And I'm enjoying being outside and doing a lot of reading and maybe doing the occasional talk like we're doing and spending time with family, talking to family who are not co present. And also, I decided to start setting for the GRV again to have another test that I'll take in late September.
Tom Kelly: [00:03:26] Yeah, you know, I think like all of us, you have to improvise [00:03:30] a little bit without access to the gyms, have you improvise things around home, like for lifting weights or other kind of exercise?
Dan Cnossen: [00:03:39] Yes, I have done a little bit of that, but I just had no home gym equipment and it was in high demand. Hard to get a hold of. And I haven't really prioritized getting it. I can do some push ups and things like that and certainly can do core exercises. But really just looking at other ways of getting strength through my [00:04:00] training platforms, through hand cycling, maybe doing hills or through the prone paddleboarding that I do as another form of cross training. And that is certainly a strength intensive activity. So doing sprints and things like that. And it's just been a load for me, honestly, a nice little departure from the norm. And so that's something to be appreciative of.
Tom Kelly: [00:04:22] Well, Dan, before we get into talking about your success in PyeongChang and your motivation for the future, let's introduce the listeners [00:04:30] to your background growing up on a farm in Kansas. And, you know, I look at that and, you know, it's just this unlikely background. But tell us about life growing up in Kansas.
Dan Cnossen: [00:04:41] Well, yes, I am from a family farm in Kansas, just outside of Topeka, still within the city limits. But right at the edge of comes to Kansas as well. And the fact the farm has been in my family for five generations. This was a homestead property. I grew up playing outside a [00:05:00] lot. And I think there is a connection with the rest of my story that unfolds over time, just that I developed the love of being outside in. In nature, and that was one of the things I'm most. Grateful for with my childhood being able to grow up on a large chunk of land and have that space to be able to roam around and play and be outside every day.
Tom Kelly: [00:05:24] What was your sport background as an athlete when you were young?
Dan Cnossen: [00:05:28] I was a very [00:05:30] mediocre athlete in the team sports that I played. I did a little bit of baseball, mostly soccer wasn't really that great at soccer. The one thing I was good at in soccer is running. And I may have maybe should have been a cross-country runner, but I was always a little too focused on soccer and and a little stocky to be a great a great cross-country runner. But when I went to the U.S. Naval Academy after high school, I really wanted to make the triathlon team and was good at cycling and good at running, but [00:06:00] not at all good at swimming. And I eventually did make the triathlon team in college at the Naval Academy, but it was a very mediocre triathlete as well, just because I didn't have that swimming, swimming background that is so important for that sport.
Tom Kelly: [00:06:14] You know, growing up in Kansas, when you were in high school, what was it that motivated you to want to go to the Naval Academy and become a sailor?
Dan Cnossen: [00:06:24] You know, I think it was a variety of things, maybe it was the fact that my father had served in [00:06:30] the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Maybe it was just the fact of what I was naturally drawn to based on what I had been exposed to. Maybe it was just the way I was born. I don't exactly know. But I know that as soon as my freshman and certainly my sophomore year of high school, I was. Completely focused on getting into the U.S. Naval Academy, and my backup was to was to apply to West Point. I knew that I wanted to combine military service with going to college. [00:07:00] And naturally gravitated to wanting to attend one of the service academies. That seemed like the logical decision to make. But I wasn't sure if I would get in. Maybe I just didn't have the credentials to get in. And so I focused. I tried to get good grades. I tried to play varsity sport and demonstrate some leadership in public service. And that did allow me to be accepted into the Naval Academy, which was which was something I was very, very excited about [00:07:30] when I was graduating high school.
Tom Kelly: [00:07:32] So at the Naval Academy, you were involved in athletics and I want to take take the listeners now to to your time as a Navy SEAL and how how does one get to join the Navy SEALs? I mean, you had some level of accomplishment you needed to achieve before you had that honor.
Dan Cnossen: [00:07:52] Yes, there are. There are two two ways to get into buds training Budd's stands for basic underwater demolition SEAL. It's the basic [00:08:00] school for anyone who wants to become a SEAL. It's about six or seven months long. But even when you're done with that, you're not officially certified as a SEAL. There's many more months of follow on training. I had to go down the route of officers collection now. Officers are not as numerous in a bus classes enlisted, so the other route is to enlist in the Navy, go to boot camp in Great Lakes normally, and then find yourself at buds. But at the Naval Academy there [00:08:30] in my year at least. And I think the numbers have gone up France. But in my year, sixteen midshipmen out of the senior class will be selected to go to butts and is really competitive. And so I had to get better at the water because I showed up at the Naval Academy really afraid of basic drills in the pool that we would do that for summer lifesaving floating and basic stuff. And so I had to work really hard. But my friends who I naturally met the first year were based on common interests and personality. They wanted to be selected for [00:09:00] for the SEAL program. And I had gone to the Naval Academy, wanted to be a Marine. But after the end of my first year, I took a good look around at my friends. And these were the guys that I had so much in common with and they wanted to be selected for the SEAL team. So I ended up kind of shifting my goals and wanted to be selected for it as well.
Tom Kelly: [00:09:21] So when you become a seal, I mean, I know that those of us in the general public, we just look with such [00:09:30] amazement at what you do and. And thank you. And all the others for. For your service. But what was the pride that you felt in representing your country as a Navy SEAL?
Dan Cnossen: [00:09:42] Thank you. Yes. There was pride. I also at the time, I didn't want any attention from the public. And I think there was an ethos in the teams about being a quiet professional and doing your job training to do your job. Training, [00:10:00] training, training, eventually deploying. Getting to do your job and then coming back and not advertising it. Not not boasting, not telling people what to do. And that kind of quiet professionalism, really at the idealized form really inspires me to just do your job for the sake of doing the job. And that is not wearing military service or patriotism or anything on your sleeve. Just doing what's right. And there are many similarities [00:10:30] between my life as a seal and my life now as an athlete on the Paralympic Nordic ski team. Certainly there's also some differences. But the transition was was for me, a pretty, pretty logical one after my injury. I'm sure we'll get into that later. But there is one thing I don't think I was directed towards wanting to be a seal just because of. Patriotism. 9/11 did happen my senior year at the Naval Academy. But at that point, I was already very much focused on wanting to be [00:11:00] a SEAL. And this had an aspect of personal challenge. Could I get through it? Could I even be selected to go to it? There was also an aspect of my friendships at the Naval Academy. This is what my best friends wanted to do. And so I wanted to do it with them. And so those are the fundamental reasons they got me into that program.
Tom Kelly: [00:11:20] You know, one of the lessons I think people take out of a program like that is learning the value of teamwork and the support of others. And even though you're in an individual [00:11:30] sport, as a bi athlete, as a Paralympic biathlete, you really rely on all of those around you, don't you?
Dan Cnossen: [00:11:37] In absolutely in seal training, I, I, I. Did to the utmost. I don't. If I had gone to the program to Bud's right after high school, not only do I not have the water proficiency and comfortability, but I wouldn't have known anyone. And it would have been so much more different. Now, fast forward four years. I've been to the Naval Academy [00:12:00] and I'm reporting for Budd's with five of my best friends and living with them in a small apartment and many really too small of an apartment to have six people jammed in there going through stressful training like we were. But knowing that every night or whenever we could come home at night that I would be living with my friend. There was no way I was going to quit. I needed that external motivation. I also needed the internal motivation of wanting to get through this and wanting to do the job after and wanting to be part of that community. [00:12:30] So it was a combination of both personal and I would say peer of forces that kind of got me through the toughest times Hell Week, which is a very famous, infamous week. And as well as many other difficult training sessions and days and weeks that I had through the training process.
Tom Kelly: [00:12:51] Now, I know that your life changed in 2009 on that nighttime mission when you stepped on a mine. Talk to us as much [00:13:00] as you can about that in and how that led to a new pathway for you.
Dan Cnossen: [00:13:08] It was a it was a nighttime assault mission in Afghanistan, I think I should back up, though, and just say that I did do several years in the SEAL teams deploying. I was I was deployed not to the places where I felt like my skills and my training in any leadership position that I was in would be put to the ultimate test. I was going [00:13:30] to Asia, for instance, Southeast Asia. And so by the time two thousand eight and two thousand nine came around, I had been in the SEAL teams for six or seven years. And although I loved it and was very proud of it and loved the people that I worked with, I had a little bit of professional insecurity going on because I wasn't a combat experienced seal. And that was a point of insecurity for me, because you either have the combat experience in the SEAL teams or you don't. And [00:14:00] the guys who had gone through the initial training with many of them, many of them most had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And I did deploy to Iraq in 2007, but I was in a support role. I wasn't in the SEAL platoon. So I came back in 2008 from that, having no combat experience and then two quarters to become a platoon commander. And we went through our 18 month platoon work up and did very well.
Dan Cnossen: [00:14:20] We were selected to go on a high risk deployment to Afghanistan. And so now finally, the stars were lining up for me professionally in my career. And I had aspirations to go on and do other things within the [00:14:30] community. But this was this was really going to be an ultimate test type of deployment where all of my leadership, my skills, my training would be put to the test in a very long and demanding deployment. Now, I deployed in advance of the rest of my platoon so that as a key leader, the officer in charge of that platoon and I could get on the ground and learn how the SEAL platoon that we would be replacing was planning and conducting operations so that by the time my guys showed up. I [00:15:00] would be ready to go. They could flow seamlessly and operations. This is this is important to say that because I was injured so early on before the rest of my platoon even arrived. We went out one night. The two simple tunes, one of which we would be replacing. So my platoon, my guys are not even really in country at this point. And I'm just observing, kind of shadowing and seeing how they're planning and conducting the operation. So we had inserted via a helicopter late at night, middle of the night dark. We planned it [00:15:30] that way.
Dan Cnossen: [00:15:30] We foot patrolled into an area that was a Taliban compound deep, deep in Taliban controlled territory. And I was part of an element that was assigned to hike to the top of a large hill that overlooked the target component and secure that that elevated ground to own the high ground, so to speak. And in so doing, I stepped on a pressure plate. And this is a bomb that went off and I was laying in the dirt and not knowing if my teammates were OK. I. [00:16:00] Can it really do anything I couldn't move, it was dark. Now, my helmet had been blasted off. And so I just remember laying there feeling totally helpless. But then my teammates were upon me before I knew it, and none of them had been injured, fortunately. And the medics started putting Tunicates on. I had to go through the application of six chernick weights on my lower body and that each one of them was very painful. And it was the first time that I was really feeling the pain because the blast itself left me in shock. And [00:16:30] then there is this race to try to get the helicopters back, to get me out of the situation, they had dropped us off and gone back to Kandahar. But that that airfield was so far away. And so time and fuel are getting critically low.
Dan Cnossen: [00:16:45] And my teammates had to drag me off the hill. And this was a steep, craggy. Rocky, dark, descent, and so carrying me just wasn't working. And we kept falling. So they tried to drag me in. This [00:17:00] is very exhausting for them to do. But these guys, my teammates up there, these are actually not members of my platoon. I didn't know many of them at a deep level, but we had the bond. We had common training, and they were doing everything that they could to get me out of the situation, to drag me down that hill. Now, that pain of being dragged off this mountain over craggy rocks and dark descent was more than anything I've ever been in in my life. It was all I could really do to try to stay awake and hang [00:17:30] onto the medics words and just focus on that. And eventually they did get me down off the hill and loaded onto a helicopter right before the helicopter had to leave because of low fuel. So everything really was close, really close. And it all depended upon my teammates, upon the leadership, upon rehearsing all of these contingency scenarios, the pilots and of course, in all the echelons of medical care going from Kandahar airfield all the way through Germany. Back to. [00:18:00] Washington, D.C.. The medical professionals. All of these people. I really owe everything to.
Tom Kelly: [00:18:09] You know, stories like this are just so moving. And you think back to all of those little pieces that had to fall in place and all of the people who had to make that happen to get you back to the U.S. and and to get you into the surgeries you needed. And then on to the rehabilitation. So [00:18:30] I've I've having worked with with many Paralympians, you know, I've heard in many different stories of how that spark ignited for something new. And how did it how did it go for you, Dan, as you're, you know, going through rehab, that you connected with cross-country skiing and ultimately biathlon as a pathway for you back?
Dan Cnossen: [00:18:58] Yes, I. I'm reminded of whatever [00:19:00] I've done or whatever I think I've done. I really have to take myself out of it and realize that I was always part of a team and a network of people. This was very evident. In the steel teams, it was evident in the story I just told from my injury. And it certainly was evident at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center at the time, they were two separate hospitals. Now, they've since merged, but started at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where I was going through surgery after surgery, after [00:19:30] surgery. It was really, really an awful difficult period. And I wasn't seeing much progress. But by the time I shifted over to Walter Reed, I was doing prosthetic physical therapy, learning how to walk on these new knee units and working with Crossette prosthetic technicians, working with physical therapists, working with the surgeons, working with the wound care team. And this very well coordinated and integrated machine at Walter Reed was really doing [00:20:00] a good job trying to support injured service members. And I was going through physical therapy with dozens, you know, at Walter Reed in 2009 and 2010, there were in the low hundreds of injured service members, some of some missing three, in some cases four limbs. So we had this environment where you're immediately reminded of how fortunate you are because there was always someone who had it worse and there were some people who were the worst and didn't have that [00:20:30] frame of reference. But in my case, I certainly saw people that had it so much worse than I did. And it's not to say that because they had it worse, that meant that I felt better about my own situation. But it just it did create a perspective that I don't think I would have had if I had been just completely in a cocoon, not seeing the challenges the people go through.
Dan Cnossen: [00:20:52] But as it near the end, I was introduced to a liaison from the Paralympic organization, and they have [00:21:00] logically were trying to recruit injured service members. This is a very of ready supply of people who now often qualify for the Paralympics and are young and they're motivated and are looking for a challenge. And so I fit into that mold. I went off to San Diego for a sports recruitment camp, and that's where I met Rob Rosser and James up. And they started talking to me and I was really interested in this biathlon sport. I thought it was running and swimming. It turns out it's cross-country skiing and shooting. And so [00:21:30] I was invited to the West Yellowstone camp in late November at the rendezvous trails. And I went out there totally unprepared and not only not only physically, but also in terms of my clothing. And it was kind of a miserable camp because of that. But but I was hooked because I was getting back in the woods again, finally. And when you lose your legs and you love mountaineering and show running, it's really frustrating because the prosthetics aren't that aren't that good or at that point even able to be used in the [00:22:00] trails. Then I was hand cycling as the closest. I was really getting going through Rock Creek Park in D.C., but that's not nearly the same as cross-country skiing on trails with no cars honking. And so I was I was just took Adam at a fundamental level. I decided I'm going to do this because it gets me in the woods.
Tom Kelly: [00:22:20] And what year was that if you were injured in 2009 and you went out to West Yellowstone, I think you said in November. What year would that have been?
Dan Cnossen: [00:22:28] Yes. Thanks for for specifying. [00:22:30] And I went out there in late November 2010 and I still had an I had a colostomy bag at the time and that was not working well being on it. So my last in major surgery was less than a few weeks after that first camp, and it was in December of 2010. And that that was to take away my colostomy bag, a really big, big event for me because I had the class me back for about a year and a half at that point. And so there was a really, really long recovery after [00:23:00] that. But I had been introduced to sit skiing and I knew I wanted to get back into it. And that brings us up into 2011, recovering from the colostomy reversal surgery and then trying to, at this point, get out to snow where I could and also still finishing up my my physical therapy at Walter Reed.
Tom Kelly: [00:23:18] You know, it's remarkable to me, Dan, that this year, just a year and a half after the incident in Afghanistan, and you're on the trails in West Yellowstone.
Dan Cnossen: [00:23:28] Well, it's you know, [00:23:30] at the time, it seemed like I was so far out of my injury, but yes, looking back a year and a half is hardly anything. But at the time, I felt like, you know, so much has changed and has been so long since I was injured. And that's not really the case. But I did feel at the time, like I was I was ready, ready to be thinking about what happens next after I leave, walk or read, because you don't really want to be learning how to walk when you're 30. But I did want to invest [00:24:00] the time and energy and I wanted to make sure I had that fundamental skill down. And then I'd be ready to live an independent life. But still looking what is gonna be next? Because so much of my identity was wrapped up in being a seal. Now it's gone. What am I going to do next? Those thoughts just kind of kept creeping into my head, even though I had a lot of immediate task at hand to be focusing on. I still was thinking about what's next, what's next. When I got into the camp at West Yellowstone, though, it [00:24:30] was very clear to me that this is this is going to be what I'm gonna be doing next. It just I just knew it. I don't even have to make the choice. And I think often in life, that's when that's when we have very strong signals that something is the right thing to do, when it doesn't even feel like it's a choice.
Tom Kelly: [00:24:46] So many athletes come into biathlon first as cross-country skiers and then learned the marksmanship aspect of it. I imagine with your Navy SEAL training that you were a good marksman but had probably never [00:25:00] been on cross-country skis.
Dan Cnossen: [00:25:02] Well, if I say that I was a good marksman. Many SEALs are gonna laugh at me because I'm an officer saying he's a good shooter is kind of a joke in the SEAL team. My job was to do mission planning and an execution and be a ground force commander and to be an overall manager. Now, of course, I was shooting a rifle from time to time, but I just I laughed any time. I call myself a good shot because the reality is the enlisted [00:25:30] team guys are just much more adept operators in that sense. Now, with that said, I did have some mixed experience shooting and. That experience. I say maybe it maybe helped me a bit in the beginning, but really to be a good biathlete. You need to train to be a biathlete. And there's there's no substitute for that kind of training. And I certainly never had shot an air rifle, which is what we shoot in the Paralympics at 10 meters. I didn't know [00:26:00] how the wind affects a pellet coming out of an air rifle. And, you know, I'm used to shooting rifles with optics and things like that. And so it was different. The fundamentals of shooting are always the same. But that familiarity with the specific air rifle was was certainly lacking for me as as would anybody. First starting this. But I did, I think, have some fundamentals are shooting probably that I [00:26:30] got a little sloppy on that. I needed to just, you know, re retrain myself in the very, very basic fundamentals I really needed to focus on in the beginning.
Tom Kelly: [00:26:40] So you're an athlete in training for a new sport. But again, less than two years after your injury, you were on the competitive circuit. You went to the world championships. What were the early days of your competitive career like for you?
Dan Cnossen: [00:26:55] Well, in the beginning, you know, we have I think the team I wasn't on the team at the 2010 Vancouver [00:27:00] games, but I think there's a bit of reorganization after the pull and the shift over to the U.S. Olympic. Now, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee happens, so integrating with U.S. Paralympics under the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee getting. And then and then just re re organizing the way the team is structured. And so it was a rebuilding year and I kind of timed it quite well to be able to get over to Europe to experience competition before I really were ready. But for me, [00:27:30] it wasn't discouraging to finish at the back or, you know, even dead last place in some of these races because it was really, for me, invigorating to travel over to Europe, see new places I love to travel, and also see how impressive some of these Paralympic many of these Paralympic athletes are, not just in the category that I'm racing and where I can. And I can understand that the best because I'm trying to become a better sit skier. But seeing athletes doing on who may not [00:28:00] be able to see anything or just dealing with varying degrees of visual impairment or other bodily situations that just make. Watching them raise and compete or really inspiring thing. So I was hooked. Some athletes maybe in that situation would be discouraged. And that's something coaching staffs are always aware of. For me, it did it did kind of make me fired up to want to train because I could see how how dominant the Russian athletes are and how fast my own U.S. teammates are on Hallstatt and any [00:28:30] Indy school and wanting to be a part of it was really great for me, traveling, training, working towards goals. It seems like a good fit coming from the military life.
Tom Kelly: [00:28:41] You know, a few years later, you qualified for the Paralympics in Sochi. Did you go into the Sochi Games with any particular expectations or goals?
Dan Cnossen: [00:28:52] I didn't have any goals in terms of results, but I think I had expectations on myself. I was still on active duty [00:29:00] at the time and I saw no real reason I had put all this pressure on myself. I don't know why. I think I think I was just. I had gone out to northern Colorado in my whole life, was just training and competing. And so when your whole life is this one thing, of course, you want to do well. And that starts to create this pressure, this sense of expectation. I was a new athlete, though, and really didn't have I mean, we all know what [00:29:30] was going on in the 2014 games. I didn't have much of a chance of coming home with with hardware. My teammate Andy Sewell really came close. And of course, Oksana Masters and Tatiana McFadden did come away with medals, and that was awesome. So to come out of that games with with a few team medals was really, really great for me. I think I was a little overtrained because, again, I was dedicating my whole life to training and I didn't have other avenues to kind of occupy my time. [00:30:00] So so that that was a big difference between the 2014 experience and the twenty eighteen experience that I had.
Tom Kelly: [00:30:09] You know, we know about the success you had in PyeongChang. And again, same question. What what did you expect when you went to South Korea? Did you have any inkling that you would come home with six medals?
Dan Cnossen: [00:30:23] No. No, not at all. I knew I did know that with the Russian athletes, whether they were representing Russia or being neutral, [00:30:30] they in the male category weren't allowed to compete. And I didn't know that that opened up a big opportunity. However, I was in a totally different mindset in twenty eighteen. I was in graduate school at the time, going to Harvard Divinity School, working on a math, a full time master's degree. I was I was consumed with trying to balance training with academics. And I knew that. Well, I considered most likely. My at my competition wasn't really doing everything [00:31:00] that I was doing, and so I thought that no one expects me to do well. I'm not really on the radar. I haven't I've done I've done competition at the at the minimum level that I could accommodate with my very busy class schedule in order to qualify for the games. And I had been racing locally at the Western ski track or getting up to cross-breed Vermont at the outdoor center there. Wonderful place and and doing a lot of local train. I knew I was ready to go, but I didn't have the the pressure. I just [00:31:30] really was in a mindset of trying to just do what I could. Each race in that past race performances, whether they were good or bad, didn't matter because every day is a new day in future races.
Dan Cnossen: [00:31:45] They don't matter either because they haven't happened yet. So really trying to just focus on what matters and what matters is what I can control and what I can control is what's going on. The second I can't control. Ten seconds ago or a minute ago. And if I focus on [00:32:00] what I can do right now, that sets me up for future success in that race. Really just kind of we also have time child races. Other than our cross-country sprint over races, our time trials. So it really does lend itself to get this mindset. I just want to see what I can do. What can I do? And I'm going to go as hard as I can and see what I can do. And whatever happens happens in many, many times. You could ask I think you could ask me, how did the race go? [00:32:30] The second I cross the line and I would say. That was a good race because I dug as deep as I could. But the second you say, well, you got tenth place. And I feel like, oh, it wasn't a good race. But so separating results from the process and just focusing on the process and the results that they come or they don't come, they will be what they will be. But really, really, really diving into that kind of here and now mindset was my.
Tom Kelly: [00:32:59] I think [00:33:00] that's a process that most successful athletes go through, is trying to separate out the results aspect and just knowing you've given it your all. You couldn't give it any more and let the results fall where they may. That when you can master that, you're going to tend to do better in the results site.
Dan Cnossen: [00:33:17] I think so, and that is not just on game day, on competition day. It is also throughout the training cycle. You don't just summon inhuman reserves of strength and energy on the day of competition. It [00:33:30] is it is the focus on the process in the training, day in and day out, in the long, often unnoticed workouts that you have to do in the base season that no one's paying attention to. It's that that is where the focus and the mental toughness really come in. And also then trying to just time yourself for peak performance, because you can always try as hard as you can go. But but really being at that. Right. Place on the on [00:34:00] the performance curve to where you can not only just mentally right there, but physically right there, that that is this almost impossible quest. That is the true art and science behind training and competing in endurance sports like cross-country skiing and biathlon.
Tom Kelly: [00:34:20] You know, setting aside some of those principles and also setting aside the principle you talked about earlier, that as a Navy SEAL, you kept that internal, you didn't [00:34:30] you didn't talk about that. You didn't really take credit for that. But I have to think that winning those six medals in PyeongChang, that gave you a very special sense of pride that you probably enjoyed sharing and being a part of.
Dan Cnossen: [00:34:46] You're correct. And it's it's been something that I've personally. Thought about in the last two two years and some change. It's this balance between No. These [00:35:00] are just medals. They don't really don't inherently mean anything of themselves. A trinket really go, you know, just a device. It represents what you want it to represent for me. I am reminded of this journey and all the people along the way that have been there with me. The process, though, hard work. But really, every athlete at this level competes hard and trains hard. And so when [00:35:30] you break it down, it was the difference of seven seconds on a race and it was a time trial. It's almost like a flip of a coin. And there have been times that I've come out on the other side of it. This time I won that gold medal race. I came out on the other side of it. Fortunate for me. But it's it's really something where I just wanted to focus on the next race. And I didn't I didn't really appreciate or let it soak in until after. And it's open doors. And those doors weren't available [00:36:00] after the 2014 Paralympics. So I'm thinking sometimes to myself, I was the same person back then. What's the difference now? Because of a race that was in many ways arbitrary, a flip of a coin. And I had a D I had a really good day, but it wasn't a perfect day, but. So I just I deal with this. And so what is the proper balance between talking and sharing my story versus just doing my job and just training and going in and competing and not worrying about results? So this is something that I struggle with and [00:36:30] trying to find the right balance.
Tom Kelly: [00:36:32] Well, it is. It is a balance, but I think good athletes such as yourself, you find that balance and just as you're speaking of it here, you will motivate others and you will serve as a role model, not just for the medals that you won, but how you went about it.
Dan Cnossen: [00:36:47] I hope so. And in the Paralympic world, as in I think it's. Similar somewhat with some of the Olympic sports. But we have a fairly big spotlight once every four [00:37:00] years. And I know the biathletes are used to competing in IPU races in Europe in front of thousands of people. And we don't we don't get that on our circuit. And so sometimes between between four years, that's a long time. And you you feel like you're doing so much focus on so much. You're focusing so much on your training. It lends itself to this kind of self-centered existence that I think now that I'm still evolving [00:37:30] as an athlete. It really it really does help to be involved in organizations where you feel like you're giving a piece of what you've learned back to the community, back to future athletes, back to kids, back to people that are struggling. And so I encourage any athletes that are listening to this to just think about that. And I do think that it would be a very gratifying thing to complement and support your training, even though at some level it does take away from training [00:38:00] and recovery. But it is really important to find a higher sense of purpose beyond just doing your own training.
Tom Kelly: [00:38:08] The you know, kind of on that at that point, I want to talk about the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is now the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and to many, maybe that was a small change of name. But to you as a Paralympian, how much did that mean to you and your fellow athletes to have that level of recognition?
Dan Cnossen: [00:38:28] I think it's very important. It's a very, very, [00:38:30] very strong signal. Now, on one hand, it's just a name change. There needs to there should be substance behind it. But but at a surface level, this is a very important signal. And. In the substantive realm, you've seen an equalization of metal pay for Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the Games. That is a substantive change that really does make a difference. So I think the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is absolutely going in the right direction. [00:39:00] And we all know things needed to change in there and it's going down that road. So I'm really impressed with the current leadership and I think they got a lot of work to do. But they're heading in the right direction.
Tom Kelly: [00:39:12] So will we see you on Team USA in Beijing?
Dan Cnossen: [00:39:18] I don't think I can answer that question. I don't think anyone in the world can answer that question right now. And so, no. As an athlete, what I can do, I can do my. I can do my training and I can focus on my training plan. [00:39:30] And I can also focus on ways that I can stay connected and hopefully help other people and just not live a totally self centered existence right now, an isolated existence.
Tom Kelly: [00:39:45] Well, we certainly hope we see you there and I want to talk a little bit about U.S. biathlon now. I know that you're. Your program is managed separately under the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. But I know from talking to our U.S. biathlon team members, they actively [00:40:00] follow you and they're really well aware of what you've accomplished. I know you probably have some interaction with them. You maybe trained together in places like Kraft, Sperry or out at Soldier Hollow, but how much are you able to follow that team? And do you do you gain anything from watching some of the stars of the sport, like Lowell Bailey, world champion from a couple of years ago, Susan Dunklee, Claire Egan and others?
Dan Cnossen: [00:40:26] Absolutely. And we all on the Paralympic Nordic team follow [00:40:30] the biathletes when we're in Europe, we're watching IPU races every weekend and cheering them on and more than more than results. Susan, in those medals at the world championships. They're good people. That's the most important thing. And to the extent that Paralympic and Olympic biathlon has been integrated, you know, I think that's just a great thing for us. It's really special to be incorporated. And I would like to see more integration and training camps [00:41:00] at Lake Placid would be would be really, really great. And, you know, kind of hard to catch that you have to catch them in the fall or the summer before the winter because they're in Europe. Another another thing would be the integration of IBU Cups with Paralympic biathlon, World Cups. We did this most recently with FIS in Dresden, with team spirit, with sprints. And so for the first time in my career, nine years, I was at a World Cup just for sprinting. And the rest of our World Cup occurred [00:41:30] in a different location. But for the sprints, we were combined with the sprints that fist was doing. And I think, you know, this is something that could be done with with IPU. We we competed Östersund. That's where our world championships were supposed to be in March. And I'd be goes to Justin. And that's that's an awesome venue that could could absolutely support I'd be you and in Paralympic skiing. So that would be something I would like to see in the next few years.
Tom Kelly: [00:41:55] It would be great to see that. I know the Fist's cross-country World Cup sprint in Dresden [00:42:00] was a was an amazing event, and I'm glad you had a chance to participate in that. I know as many athletes do, you have spent a lot of time giving back. And I was trying to do the math on how you get all of this done. How do you train as an athlete? Get to I think you have two master's degrees from Harvard now and still have time to give back to organizations like O2X and maybe tell us a little bit about what it means to you to give back to organizations like that [00:42:30] and how do you use your leadership skills that you've gleaned over the years to help others?
Dan Cnossen: [00:42:37] Well, I do think as much as we train that in an endurance sport like cross-country skiing, biathlon, there is a lot of the day that you're not actually training that, especially as a upper body athlete like the six skiers. We were not training five hours a day, maybe three or four counting drive time and things like that. But, you know, I was very [00:43:00] I was very self focused when I was living in Colorado, very self focused when I was in graduate school. I had I just didn't have much spare capacity. And then after graduating in twenty eighteen, I was exposed to classroom champions, which I got involved with. I've been involved with ever since. They're pairing Olympic and Paralympic athletes now. Now professional and college athletes with with kids in sometimes underserved communities and creating partnerships and relationships to help [00:43:30] and show how goal setting and dealing with adversity in the athletic world can help kids in their own lives and in the classroom. So that's a wonderful organization. And then I've been doing work with company started by my friend, and it's called O2X, and we do workshops for firefighters and first responders.
Dan Cnossen: [00:43:52] And I'm a resilience specialist. Now, this is I just recently had a workshop with Boston Fire Department last week where in person I got to present [00:44:00] a class on resilience and goal setting. And these workshops have really taken a hit because of the virus. But hopefully getting it back up and running and to us is also done some work with professional organizations like the Chicago Blackhawks. So this is a chance for me to interact with athletes, but also tactical athletes, firefighters who are, you know, wanting to perform to the best of their ability in a tactical environment and ensure longevity in their life, both mentally and physically. So this [00:44:30] is something that it doesn't happen a lot in the winter because a demanding schedule. But when I come back in the spring, summer and fall, be a part of these workshops, it really bridges the gap for me between my military service, my athletic career, and then helping people in a similar a similar situation, this case, firefighters. So those are those are two things that I spent a lot of my time now dealing with.
Tom Kelly: [00:44:56] Dan, I'm intrigued by what is a resilience expert. [00:45:00] I have some thoughts. But tell us tell us what resiliency is all about.
Dan Cnossen: [00:45:04] Well, I I am not an expert on results, and I say that in the class and they do have oh, Travis has trauma and sports psychologists presenting to firefighters as well. I think where I come in is just some lived experience going through seal training and how weak and some of the lessons I learned and then applied after my injury. How do you how do you think about mental toughness? Well, I think it's something that needs to be [00:45:30] practiced. And you you you become mentally tough by going through difficult situations. You know, we're not looking to create trauma or anything, but you can develop these things for me. It's also goal setting. The goal setting really helped me, whether I knew it or not, after my injury. Having the ability to create long term goals that we're really in need and organic to me was important. But if I thought about them for too long, there was too much uncertainty [00:46:00] around them. I kind of associate timeline's with these goals. So I had to develop the flexibility to go from this this ultra laser like focus on what I need to do to get through today or just focusing on today and not thinking too far into the future, too, to then realizing what the bigger picture is. So that's kind of what I talk about when I talk to the firefighters. And so in a tactical environment, maybe they're in extremis. They need to really have this laser like focus on what they need to do right now, prioritizing that and [00:46:30] executing that within in the way that they structure their. They're their day to day existence going stretching into weeks and months and years than they need. That's where they need the long term medium term goals.
Tom Kelly: [00:46:42] You know, I really love the concept of this, a good friend of mine was for many years a wildland firefighter. And, you know, I think about what those firemen go through day after day fighting wildland fires. And, you know, you've got to be tough. You've got to be resilient and [00:47:00] persevere through that.
Dan Cnossen: [00:47:02] You do. You do. And it's just like on a race day, you don't just summon inhuman reserves of strength because you're trying as hard as you can. It comes through training and preparation. This is both the body in the mind. And so that's that's the goal of O to X. And it's if you can if you can try to improve just a little bit with your sleep routine in your nutrition and your hydration and your physical conditioning and [00:47:30] then your mental skills and then your team skills, you add all that up and then you stretch it out over 20, 30 years. This can create massive changes.
Tom Kelly: [00:47:40] It's amazing to think about that. Dan, one more serious question before we close out with a little bit of fun stuff, but I think a lot of us, as fans of sport, you know, for us, it's, you know, it's watching on television or on the Internet and seeing who won the race and seeing the thrill of victory. But you're someone who has an amazing life story. It's a life story that began when you were [00:48:00] young. It manifested itself for you as a Navy SEAL and now as a Paralympic champion as you look back on your life. What are the what's the main lesson that you take away that you can share with others to help them?
Dan Cnossen: [00:48:16] Well, I would say there's a there's a strong power and in believing in yourself and then having a solid network of friends and family around you. You don't get anywhere all alone. And [00:48:30] there were times when I. Although I hadn't goals and I had internal motivation, there were times that I needed the people around me. Absolutely. And so it's a combination of believing in yourself, but also learning how to lean on the people around you in times of need and support one another. And that's
Tom Kelly: [00:48:50] It's about teamwork.
Dan Cnossen: [00:48:51] Absolutely. And as individual athletes on ski team, there's a little bit of a. Situation [00:49:00] difference in the sense that if let's say if you take the the women biathletes, if one of them wins, that means none of wethers did win. And so it's a different situation than in the military where if the platoon or any individual within the platoon wins, so to speak, in a tactical scenario, the whole platoon does well. So there is a bit of a difference. But I really believe if you can if you can really develop [00:49:30] a sense of teamwork, that that one person winning doesn't mean that the others didn't win, but the team still won. So looking at it like that is it's just a difference of framing, I believe. But it's a little you know, it's it's a challenging thing when other people are doing well. And then that means that you yourself are not doing well. So how to deal with that is a challenge. But but this is incumbent on coaches and [00:50:00] leaders and athletes, too. I guess you don't go through the difficult work. And this is very important with team building to create this kind of atmosphere where individual success equals team success for the people who may not have had the individual success.
Tom Kelly: [00:50:17] Important thoughts. Dan, thank you so much for sharing them. So we're going to move on and just close it out with a little bit of fun stuff that I call on target. I'm going to have a series of short little questions for you to learn a little bit more about you and have a little bit of fun [00:50:30] and
Dan Cnossen: [00:50:30] Putting me on the spot.
Tom Kelly: [00:50:32] Oh, yeah. It'll be easy, though. Don't worry. No trick questions. I don't think anyways. You've had an opportunity now with biathlon, the Paralympic biathlon, to travel the world and be in many great places. What's your favorite competition venue around the world?
Dan Cnossen: [00:50:48] Östersund, Sweden.
Tom Kelly: [00:50:50] Östersund Sweden. And what are the things that have gravitated you towards Östersund?
Dan Cnossen: [00:50:57] Well, anywhere in Scandinavia [00:51:00] is particularly good, but I think the trails for sit skiing are just so fun there. The the. Venue is wonderful for cross-country racing as well as biathlon. You have a fun town with stuff going on. Museum, little university cafes, things like that, restaurants and people are very friendly. And then there's a whole network of trails. And so just it all lines up being a really wonderful spot.
Tom Kelly: [00:51:27] Cool. Favorite participant sport for you [00:51:30] outside of skiing.
Dan Cnossen: [00:51:33] I'm I mean, my initial thought is searching, but I don't know if I consider is for me at least surfing the sport.
Tom Kelly: [00:51:41] Well, it can be an activity, let's talk about surfing, because that intrigues me.
Dan Cnossen: [00:51:46] I love to surf. I've got I've gotten into it, you know, for someone who is scared of the water. It was interesting that I was I was scared of the water, but I just wasn't exposed to it as a kid. And when I showed up at the Naval Academy, it just was something that I hadn't been exposed [00:52:00] to. And that created, I think, a sense of apprehension, because you're in this environment where in the beginning, in that first summer, there's a lot of pressure. And so you want to perform well and you want to have the respect of the people around you. It was creating some anxiety with me, but I have now since long, long shed that apprehension of the water and fallen in love with surfing because of many reasons. But it's important and also as a surfer, to have that respect of the ocean and to realize that you need to stay within your limits. But [00:52:30] there's this really amazing thing when when I've taken some trips to Indonesia, but in these and elsewhere, but in the certain certain moments that I can recall, everything just seemed to line up where the tide was doing, what it was doing.
Dan Cnossen: [00:52:47] The current was doing what it was doing. The ocean had this wave pattern that it had, and I had to know where to put myself and time and space in it all. All of these variables, what the wind was doing, it [00:53:00] all lined up. And I got on a wave and it just really felt free and. I can when I think about surfing. Think about is it competitive? Would I want it to be competitive? Would I want it to be a sport? And the answer is no way. I just love it for what it is. So then this challenge for me is to create this sense of what I have around surfing into. Then maybe try to apply it to skiing into biathlon, because I think we get so caught up in results in competition that we lose [00:53:30] the sense of what it really is. And so for me, surfing, it just naturally is this wonderful thing that doesn't need to be anything else.
Tom Kelly: [00:53:40] Yeah, we always have to remember that the reason we participate in these sports is because they're fun. We love engaging in them.
Dan Cnossen: [00:53:49] Yes. And so. That is that is the base fundamental level and why? Why did you even get into something in the first place? What was it about? It was the [00:54:00] speed on the snow. Being in the woods, whatever it is, I think I think creating these anchor points is important for for me, surfing is this really special thing. And it can all it can quickly become scary or dangerous. But I've been. I think. Trying to trying to put myself in the comfortable zone where it's still a challenge. And then it can be really fun, but not not tipping over into the point of where I might actually get injured [00:54:30] doing it. So that's that's the balance.
Tom Kelly: [00:54:34] Got
Dan Cnossen: [00:54:34] And.
Tom Kelly: [00:54:34] To keep keep it fun.
Dan Cnossen: [00:54:36] Yeah, absolutely. And it really is this meditative kind of thing almost. And so there's a lot of variables going on. But the ocean is just gonna do what it's gonna do. And then you hope that you can put yourself in the right place at the right time. And it all comes together.
Tom Kelly: [00:54:52] Right on favorite pandemic Netflix binge.
Dan Cnossen: [00:54:57] Oh, I don't have [00:55:00] Netflix. It's probably
Tom Kelly: [00:55:01] It could be any
Dan Cnossen: [00:55:02] Right.
Tom Kelly: [00:55:02] Any content provider.
Dan Cnossen: [00:55:04] I mean, I watch I watched World on Fire by. It's actually what was on PBS. And I know that doesn't sound like I'm referring.
Tom Kelly: [00:55:15] That's OK.
Dan Cnossen: [00:55:16] Yes. But it was on fire. Was it was really good. And I'm I'm looking forward to the next season. It was spring on PBS and it had some historical connections with World War Two. And it was great.
Tom Kelly: [00:55:29] Well, I mean, here's the thing [00:55:30] about PBS. It is free and there's amazing content.
Dan Cnossen: [00:55:33] Yeah.
Tom Kelly: [00:55:33] So that's a good answer. And then last one in one word. Dan, what does it mean to you to be a Paralympic biathlete, biathlon champion?
Dan Cnossen: [00:55:46] One word. Special needs to get special is just special for me.
Tom Kelly: [00:55:54] It is special. Dan, thank you so much for joining us, telling your story, sharing it with others. [00:56:00] It's been a delight to get to know you a little better.
Dan Cnossen: [00:56:04] Thanks, Tom. I've enjoyed your questions and thanks for keeping an interest in me and for having me on the podcast.
Tom Kelly: [00:56:10] Well, happy to have you here. Biathlon is a sport of precision and ultimate test of athletes on snow. Paralympic champion Dan Cnossen is a remarkable athlete and a role model for all of us. And Dan, thanks for joining us on HEARTBEAT. Don't forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast channel. You'll find Heartbeat on Apple [00:56:30] podcast, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and more. We'll be back with more content throughout the summer and in the season ahead. I'm your host, Tom Kelly, from all of us at U.S. Biathlon. Thanks for listening to Heartbeat.

Heartbeat: US Biathlon Podcast (c) US Biathlon