A Wounded Warrior’s grueling path to Paralympic gold

After losing his legs, former Navy SEAL Dan Cnossen fought his way to a new life as a skier.

Dan Cnossen, training in West Yellowstone, Montana.
Dan Cnossen, training in West Yellowstone, Montana. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — The horror and the beauty suddenly converge somewhere in Dan Cnossen’s brain, as is only possible for someone who has been on intimate terms with both. They merge onto a neural on-ramp to his vocal cords, producing the following, verbatim thought-stream:

“My last memories were of being dragged — wow, isn’t this gorgeous! — were being dragged into a helicopter. Wait, let me get a picture here. [A pause as he whipped out his iPhone to snap a picture out the car window.] I was getting dragged off a hill. My teammates were saving my life. Dragged into a helicopter — and then the lights go out.”

He stops there and sits back in the seat of the car he’s riding in, as if to let those incongruous forces drift back to their respective corners.

The horror: his still-vivid recollections, which he was now being asked to resurface, of Sept. 7, 2009, when Cnossen, at the time a 29-year-old Navy SEAL platoon commander, stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, nearly losing his life and effectively ending one part of it — the part in which he had legs and a plan to enjoy a long and fulfilling military career.

The beauty: a scenic stretch of Highway 191 heading south out of Bozeman toward West Yellowstone, hard by the Gallatin River, where, one afternoon in December, the slow climb began to reveal the snowy peaks of the Gallatin Range. It was here, less than two years after the accident, that Cnossen first strapped himself into a sit-ski and took his first, awkward, halting try at Nordic skiing — the pursuit that would dominate this latest phase of his life.

For some 12½ years now, this has been the essential dichotomy of Cnossen’s life: the search for meaning and beauty out of perhaps the most horrific ordeal anyone could experience and survive. It is what brought him back to Montana on this day, at the start of a three-week-long training session, just as the winter’s first significant snowfall made the Yellowstone region hospitable to an elite Nordic skier.

And it is what, this week, takes him to Beijing for the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, where, at 41, he will be one of Team USA’s top medal hopes in biathlon and cross-country skiing. Four years ago in PyeongChang, Cnossen came out of nowhere to earn three medals in each discipline, including gold in the 7.5-kilometer biathlon.

How did a kid from a fifth-generation farm family in Topeka, who hadn’t seen an ocean until he arrived as a plebe at the Naval Academy, wind up crossing the Pacific to win a Paralympic gold medal — then cross it again four years later to try to win another? It’s a story, naturally, of horror and beauty.

*****

It is typically not a great idea to take your life’s organizing principle from something with “hell” in its name.

But at some point in the early stages of Hell Week in February 2003, when Cnossen and his fellow Navy SEALs slogged through the last and most physically and mentally taxing part of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, he realized something important: It would do him little good to focus on getting to the end of the entire 5½-day ordeal, during which the sleep-deprived and browbeaten trainees are pushed to their breaking points, to such a degree that, typically, only 25 to 50 percent make it to the end without giving up.

The better strategy, Cnossen realized, was to make it to the end of the specific task at hand — which, at the moment it occurred to him, involved carrying a telephone pole on his back through the cold surf of southern San Diego County, and then make it to the end of the next one and the next one after that.

“You learn during Hell Week that whatever you thought your limits were,” he said, “they’re actually further away than that.”

That overarching lesson of Hell Week was one he would return to throughout his adult life, never more meaningfully than in the aftermath of Sept. 7, 2009.

At the time, Cnossen was initiating what was called a phased turnover process. As the commander of SEAL Team One, he deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, ahead of the rest of his 18-person team to shadow the leadership of the platoon that his would be replacing.

It was a nighttime patrol along the side of a steep hill. It could have been any of them. But it was him.

“Nobody made a mistake. If anything, I’ve asked myself, ‘Did I make a mistake?’” Cnossen said. “The reality is, where we were and what we were doing was pretty dangerous. The area had been covered with these things.”

After the IED detonated, the first task for Cnossen to focus on was staying awake as he was dragged down the hill to the helicopter that would carry him to safety.

“Whatever willpower I had left was all about staying awake during this drag. I just felt like, if I didn’t, maybe I would’ve died,” he said. “It was probably a 10- or 15-minute body-drag, at the edge of the pain I could even bear. Everything I was trying to do was just to stay awake.”

Eight days later, when he awoke from a medically induced coma, Cnossen was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and his mother was standing over his bed. Blankets covered his lower extremities. It would be days before he mustered the courage to ask whether his legs were gone.

In those first few days in the ICU, he was beset by hellish nightmares fueled by the heavy painkillers he was on: scenes of dismemberment, his limbs being cut off by faceless men on that hill outside Kandahar. He was always in night-vision goggles in the nightmares, patrolling a hillside.

“When you’re in that nightmare, it’s real,” he said. “I would wake up in delirium.”

Among Cnossen’s injuries from the blast: the loss of both legs just above the knees, a shattered pelvis, a ruptured bladder, a severed urethra and shredded intestines. In the weeks and months that followed, he would undergo more than 40 surgeries

It was useless, he quickly realized, to try to wrap his head around the entirety of the long road he faced. The better strategy was to get through the next day, then the next. The next surgery, then the next. The fact that some weeks involved three or four surgeries somehow made it easier.

“It let me structure my day,” said Cnossen, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor. “It’s like: ‘Okay, I have surgery today. That’s six or seven hours where I don’t have to do anything or think about anything.’ I was actually looking forward to that. …

“It helps to have long-term goals, but what you really need are short-term goals to focus on. I needed to get through every day. Then my next goal was to get outside. Then it’s, ‘I’m going to get into a wheelchair, and when I get into a wheelchair, I’m going to do 10 miles a day through this hospital.’ ”

And after the wheelchair came the prosthetics and relearning to walk, first with a pair of canes, then just one, then on his own power. On Sept. 7, 2010, one year to the day after the accident, he ran four laps around an outdoor track — one mile.

Asked whether he ever gave in to the despair, allowing the full, monumental toll of the trauma and the sheer length of the road back to overwhelm him, he nodded and said, “Just one night.”

That one night, he recalled, he broke down in tears in his hospital bed. “It was only a few minutes of crying, just feeling like: ‘What the hell am I going to do? What’s my life going to look like? How am I going to shower? How am I going to live?’ ”

What pulled him through was the same brick-by-brick mentality that had gotten him through Hell Week years earlier and the first few weeks after the injury, as well as a relentless positivity that had allowed him to convince himself that was a winning strategy.

“That night I broke down, I was feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “But … I chose to do this job. There were risks. What’s worse is losing someone in your platoon when you’re a platoon leader. I didn’t have to deal with that. I’ve thought about this a lot: Why did I step there? But c’mon — I could’ve been five yards to the left, and there could’ve been another one.

“Given that I stepped where I did, the fact I wasn’t vaporized, my friends weren’t killed, they were able to save my life — I mean, I’d rather be alive than dead. Whatever I can do in my life for the next 50 years or however long I’m alive, it’s more than I would’ve done if I had died.”

*****

Cnossen’s search for meaning and purpose from his altered life took him down two roughly parallel pathways, one of them physical, the other spiritual.

A self-made athlete with an indefatigable motor — he arrived as a plebe at the Naval Academy unable to swim but turned himself into a competitive triathlete — he signed up for a camp run by the U.S. Paralympic Committee, which sought to recruit wounded veterans as potential Paralympians.

In Cnossen’s mind, he was thinking distance running or perhaps hand-cycling, summer sports where his supreme aerobic fitness would serve him well. Instead, a couple of Nordic skiing coaches talked him into getting onto a ski machine and plied him with tales of snowy trails in quiet woods.

“Three months later,” he said, “I was in West Yellowstone.”

His first experience on a sit-ski — the engineered, sled-like vehicle where a double-amputee such as Cnossen rides atop attached skis — went terribly. Forget about being able to propel himself forward; he couldn’t even keep himself warm, having had no clue what sort of winter gear he needed to cover the stumps he now had as legs.

“I wouldn’t say I was hooked on it, right then and there — because it sucked,” he said. “But it was also a way to be in the woods, which I loved. I wasn’t good at it. It was hard. But I was at least going to take the next step, then take the next step.”

Cnossen received a transfer to the Fort Carson army base near Colorado Springs, and eventually, when it seemed skiing was becoming more than a hobby, he retired from the Navy altogether. By 2014, he had made Team USA’s roster at the Sochi Paralympic Games, posting a best finish of ninth place in his six events.

Meanwhile, he used the GI Bill to undertake a master’s in public administration at Harvard, eventually tacking on a second master’s degree in divinity, a pursuit inspired at least in part by his quest for answers to the questions sparked by his accident in Afghanistan. Maybe they weren’t answerable at all, but he wanted to try.

“I’m not religious,” he said, “but I’m very much interested in the questions that religion is interested in . …

“You can study philosophy or ethics there. There are students there who are atheists or agnostics. You could study the questions behind human suffering.”

Asked what meaning he ultimately found in his own suffering, he said, “I came to the conclusion that if this didn’t happen to me it would’ve been someone else. Because someone would’ve stepped on it. I’m not married. I’m not a father. I could handle this. I have the right mental outlook. I’m fit. I lived. Someone else might’ve died. I don’t need to look for too much meaning beyond that.”

At the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics, Cnossen wasn’t expecting much. He was fitting his training around his class schedule at Harvard, and although the dates of the Winter Games conveniently fell across his spring break, he had a bag of books with him and was writing papers between events. No one was more surprised than him when he medaled in all six of his events, including the lone gold — the first in Team USA history in a Nordic event.

“He has a totally fascinating relationship with competition,” Eileen Carey, coach of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing team, said of Cnossen. “He truly doesn’t care about the results. … He exemplifies the notion of pushing oneself to one’s limits. I know that’s a cliche in high-level sports, but when you really, truly do that and are exploring all the elements of who you are in that way, it’s remarkable.”

These days, Cnossen fits his training schedule around his professional gigs as a motivational speaker and workshop leader. “I’m a specialist in resilience,” he said — a sentence that works as either a bit of corporate-speak or a literal statement. A voracious reader, he has designs on teaching war literature to college students and has applied for a handful of professorships.

He probably won’t do another Paralympic quad after Beijing, but he keeps a running list of places he still wants to explore on skis: Sovereign Lake in British Columbia, Mt. St. Anne in Quebec, parts of Norway and Sweden beyond where he has already competed in World Cup events.

“I’ve been blessed to do this sport. I’m still motivated to do it but to use it as a way to explore and stay connected to nature,” Cnossen said, strapping himself in for a long, solo jaunt through the snowy trails of West Yellowstone.

“That’s the most important thing about this journey — keep going, keep covering ground.”

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