Coming In Fresh, U.S. Para Skiers Aim To Shine At Nordic Worlds

by Alex Abrams

Aaron Pike competes during the 2023 FIS Para Nordic Skiing World Championships on Jan. 21, 2023 in Östersund, Sweden.


Dan Cnossen and Dani Aravich decided to simplify their lives and their training schedules after competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 last March.


Aravich, who ran cross country and track and field at Butler University, made her Paralympic debut as a sprinter at the 2020 Tokyo Games. However, she chose this offseason to stop running competitively and instead focus on improving as a Para Nordic skier.


Cnossen had a similar decision to make as he prepared for the FIS Para Nordic World Championships in Östersund, Sweden, which began Saturday and runs through Jan. 29.


The former Navy SEAL has won three of his seven Paralympic medals in the biathlon, including a gold at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Still, he opted to not compete in the biathlon this season so he could stay fresh for his cross-country skiing races.


“I don’t need to prove anything to myself. I just love (skiing) so much,” said Cnossen, a three-time Paralympian who’ll turn 43 in May. “I love racing, and it’s just a little bit more fun, I think, to race fresh at this point in my career and just to be out there, representing the country on this team.


“I just don’t want it to end, and that’s why I’m still doing it.”


It has been a quick turnaround for the six American skiers and one guide who are competing at the world championships only 10 months after they raced at the Beijing Winter Paralympics.


Since this isn’t a Paralympic year, the world championships will be the highest-profile international competition that Team USA competes in this season.


As a result, the Americans have had to adjust their training to ensure they perform their best early in the season instead of at the end of the season like a year ago. They need to ski fast and be accurate with their rifle shooting in January, not March.


Team USA got off to a strong start at the world championships with two dual-sport stars each earning a medal on Jan. 21.


After wrapping up her paratriathlon season in November with a silver medal at the world championships, six-time Paralympic medalist Kendall Gretsch won her eighth career world title with a victory in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint biathlon race. Meanwhile, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike, who also competes in track and field, earned the silver medal in the men’s 7.5-kilometer sprint biathlon race.


“We had a really late worlds for triathlon this year, so I didn’t get the same transition into the ski season as I normally would,” Gretsch told “But I do think that fitness from triathlon helped me prepare for this. I’ve been trying to use the last month or so to get back those ski muscles.”


Gretsch’s fitness shone through on day two as well. The Illinois native picked up her second gold medal of the competition in the 18-km individual classic crow-country race on Jan. 22. In the men’s visually impaired 18-km individual classic, four-time Paralympic medalist Jake Adicoff and his guide Sam Wood secured a silver medal.

Kendall Gretsch competes in the 2023 FIS Para Nordic Skiing World Championships on Jan. 22, 2023 in Östersund, Sweden


Eileen Carey, director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing, said the world championships serve as an important milestone as the team embarks on a new quad.


“As the main event of the season, it is a great opportunity for our team to practice our strategies for peaking in performance,” Carey said. “We learn a lot from these championships events that we can fine tune from year-to-year.


“We are focused on athlete improvement from year-to-year, race-to-race. Great results are always welcome, but the focus is one of continual learning and improvement.”


Because of a late cancellation, U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing didn’t travel internationally to compete in a world cup event prior to the start of the world championships, as it has done in the past. However, the top American Para Nordic skiers got in some much-needed race experience at a pair of domestic events this winter — the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Sit Ski Nationals in Midway, Utah, and the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships in Houghton, Michigan.


“I didn’t get on snow as early as I would’ve wanted this year just due to some extracurricular activities that I had going on,” Cnossen said. “But nevertheless, I feel ready to go.


“I think the race experience is very critical prior to an event like this. We did get that at the nationals in Soldier Hollow (in Utah). … So it was really important to get those races in, and it kind of tunes you up.”


Carey said it’s normal for the field at the first world championships following the Winter Paralympics to be smaller in size. Some athletes decide to retire or take a break immediately after the Winter Games.


Athletes from China and Russia aren’t competing at this year’s world championships, which considerably reduced the size of the field.


At the same time, the U.S. roster for the world championships consists of only seven athletes — Aravich, Cnossen, Gretsch, Pike, three-time Paralympic medalist Sydney Peterson, and Adicoff with Wood as his guide.


In comparison, Team USA had 15 athletes compete less than a year ago in Beijing.


One noticeable absence is 17-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters, the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time. She’s recovering after suffering an injury to her left hand that required surgery.


“For world championships, we have a qualification standard. It happens that the qualification standard we have for this event selected a smaller team than we had in Beijing,” Carey said. “But we often have a similar standard for this event, and the team is growing year-to-year. As we continue to develop as a nation, we would anticipate that our team for this event will also grow.”


Cnossen said he has typically performed well in late January “but kind of fizzled out in March.” However, he believes he can ski just as fast as he did 5-10 years ago when he gives his body a rest — which he did by deciding to not compete in the biathlon this season.


“The field (at the world championships) is very competitive, and for me, in order to have a chance to be near the podium I think I need to be fresh and ready to go and hungry,” Cnossen said. “That’s how I know I structured my training this year. We’ll see how it goes.”

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.