No Longer A Rising Star, Kendall Gretsch Heads To 2022 Paralympics As Bona Fide Force

by Al Daniel

Kendall Gretsch in action on the way to winning gold in the women's middle sitting 10-kilometer biathlon during the World Para Snow Sports Championships on Jan. 16, 2022 in Lillehammer, Norway.


Kendall Gretsch knows she can no longer creep into contention like she did at her Paralympic Winter Games debut in 2018 after less than half a training cycle.
When the 29-year-old from Downers Grove, Illinois, arrives in Beijing next month for another Paralympics, she’ll do so not just as the defending champion in the sitting 6-kilometer biathlon and 12-kilometer cross-country races, but also as the defending gold medalist in the paratriathlon from the recent Summer Games in Tokyo.
In fact, it was only after learning that her paratriathlon class wouldn’t be included in the 2016 Rio Games that she started Nordic skiing.
That means Gretsch enters the 2022 Games with essentially three times the skiing experience as before.
“Being more experienced now, I have higher expectations of myself for sure,” she said. “It’s exciting to be able to compete at these Games, having had a full four-year cycle to be able to train.”
She punctuated that tune-up by tearing through the belated World Para Snow Sports Championships last month in Lillehammer, Norway. Her three gold medals were more than what 14 of the 24 participating countries garnered collectively. With four medals overall, she eclipsed the aggregate of nine nations.
Still, she cautions, “We didn’t have China. That was one big missing piece.”

Oksana Masters wins gold and Kendall Gretsch wins silver in the women's 15-kilometer sitting cross-country race during the World Para Snow Sports Championships on Jan. 18, 2022 in Lillehammer, Norway.


Indeed, the soon-to-be Paralympic hosts did not take part in the Lillehammer event. Moreover, with the world championships delayed a year and now ending just 40 days before the Paralympics begin, Gretsch was not alone in treating the Lillehammer event in part as a tune-up.
“Knowing that it’s not everyone’s focus, you don’t know how people are showing up for the event,” said Gretsch, who sat out the biathlon sprint in Lillehammer. “So I think you kind of take everything with a grain of salt.”
Nonetheless, Gretsch’s results speak for themselves: She defended her individual biathlon gold from the 2019 world championship and upgraded from silver in the middle-distance cross-country and middle-distance biathlon races. The only race she didn’t win — long-distance cross-country — Gretsch finished second to teammate Oksana Masters.
It’s a familiar placement for the two skiers, though the finishing positions are often interchangeable.
Going back to the 2018 Winter Games, Gretsch has cited her Nordic teammate and fellow two-sport athlete as a role model. Both were among the biggest stars of Team USA in PyeongChang, and then made history almost back-to-back in Tokyo this past summer.
With her paratriathlon class included this time in the Tokyo Paralympics, Gretsch caught and surpassed Australia’s Lauren Parker, the defending world champion, in the final moments of their race to win the gold medal. Just days later, Masters won the first of her two gold medals as a cyclist. The wins put the duo among an elite group of six Americans to have won Paralympic gold in both the Summer and Winter Games.
“Seeing how hard she works in practice — she’s usually the last one off the snow in practice — or how she studies a course is really cool to see,” Gretsch said. “The attention to detail is something I try to implement as well.”

Kendall Gretsch competes in the cross-country 10-kilometer mixed relay race during the World Para Snow Sports Championships on Jan. 23, 2022 in Lillehammer, Norway.


In the days after her world championships performance in Lillehammer, Gretsch’s focus remained on where she can still improve. Specifically, she has yet to medal in a cross-country sprint and is customizing more training sessions accordingly.
“New is not the right word,” she said of that avenue, “but I guess that’s still not really my strength.”
That statement comes from someone who once did not think of competing in any winter events, let alone before partaking in any Summer Games.
Gretsch swam competitively through high school and took up triathlons in 2012. In between, Gretsch has taken the stamina she built in the pool, and the mental agility she honed on the clarinet with the well-traveled Downers Grove (Illinois) North High School band, to equal heights as a cross-country skier and biathlon shooter.
With those three gold medals, she is the most decorated Downers Grove product in Olympic or Paralympic history. Her success follows that of Cammi Granato — captain of the 1998 gold-medal and 2002 silver-medal women’s hockey team; Tony Granato — 1988 men’s hockey player and 2018 coach; Nancy Johnson — 1996 gold medalist in shooting; and Sandi Morris — silver medalist pole vaulter in 2016.
“It is kind of crazy to be in the same sentence as those people,” said Gretsch, “and not something I had ever expected.”
But now she is poised to embrace elevated expectations. Even if some teams were looking past Norway in January, Gretsch felt a worthy warmup act with the Belarusian, German and Russian athletes joining her and Masters on various medal boards.
“I would say the world championship was pretty competitive in terms of who was on the podium,” said Gretsch. “That makes an exciting prospect for the Games.”

Al Daniel is a freelance features writer and contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. Follow him on Twitter @WriterAlDaniel.