Prepare, Push, Adapt: Dan Cnossen’s Para Nordic Career Is Going Strong Into It’s Second Decade
by Alex Abrams
Dan Cnossen competes in the 2023 FIS Para Nordic Skiing World Championships on Jan. 24, 2023 in Oestersund, Sweden.
Dan Cnossen trains every day, but he was careful not to say too much about what his workouts consist of from one day to the next.
“I don’t want to give any secrets away to the competition,” he said, laughing.
Cnossen, who was raised on a family farm just outside Topeka, Kansas, knows how to push his body to its limits. He overcame his initial fear of water and made it through “Hell Week” in February 2003 to become a Navy SEAL.
A few years later, Cnossen was still recovering after losing both of his legs just above the knee in an explosion in Afghanistan when he decided to sign up for a half marathon. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t trained at all for the race.
Now a seven-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, Cnossen has learned to listen to his body and tweak his workouts so he can continue to ski as fast as he did a decade ago.
A sit skier, Cnossen is competing this week at the Para Nordic world championships in Östersund, Sweden — four months shy of his 43rd birthday and 12 years after he raced at his first world championships.
“When I was in my 30s, I was thinking like when you train you got to be dead tired every day,” Cnossen said. “There may be phases or certain days where you’re doing that, and certainly training should be hard. But then it should not be hard every single day. That’s what I’ve learned, especially as an upper body athlete.”
In March, Cnossen competed in his third Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing and had a full schedule of races while there. He took part in six biathlon and cross-country skiing events and won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. cross-country skiing mixed relay team.
At this point in his career, the three-time Paralympian said he knows his body better than anyone else. He communicates with his coaches and gets their guidance on specific workouts, but he comes up with his daily training plan.
Cnossen said there are days when he wakes up in the morning and must adjust his workouts to how his body is feeling at the moment.
“I’m learning the rhythm to where I can be pretty confident that if I do a certain pattern on the days that I need to be ready to go to do a hard workout that I’ll be fresh,” Cnossen said. “So I’m just learning the pattern.
“You know there’s altitude, there’s travel (associated with Para Nordic skiing), but if I stick with kind of what I’ve been learning the last few months I know that most likely I’ll wake up ready to go on the days that I need to.”
Dan Cnossen skis in a training run during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 1, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Cnossen has made a major change since the Beijing Games to lighten his load and keep his body fresh now that he’s 42 years old. He has decided to stop competing in the biathlon and is instead focusing all his training on cross-country skiing.
It wasn’t a small decision, though. He won six medals at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018, including a gold and two silvers in the biathlon.
Cnossen said he feels he can still perform well when he gives his body time to rest. However, it becomes more difficult for him when he’s competing in three, four or five biathlon and cross-country skiing races in one week.
Cnossen is scheduled to compete in a pair of cross-country skiing races at the world championships in Östersund — the sprint and the 10-kilometer race. He finished fifth in his semifinal heat of the sprint on Tuesday, while the 10K is scheduled for Saturday.
“Obviously in biathlon and cross-country skiing, the goal is to ski fast. That’s a common thread between both sports,” Cnossen said. “But now that I’m focused only on cross country, shooting is out of the equation, and it is just this focus on how can I ski faster. In many ways, what I can do today to actually be faster is to not train or to go run, and that’s a huge difference.”
Cnossen has no plans to retire from Para Nordic skiing anytime soon. He said he intends to take it one season at a time.
“And the thing that I love about cross-country skiing is that every single year I’ve been doing it, by the time November, December comes around, I’m pretty excited. And that didn’t change this year,” Cnossen said.
“I even thought I was kind of burnt out coming off of Beijing. But I’m actually right now more fired up than ever, and I really like this focus on cross-country skiing and just trying to be a fast skier. I’m as enthusiastic as I’ve ever been internally.”
Of course, things could change for Cnossen, though that doesn’t appear likely. This is his sixth time competing at a world championships, his first one coming in 2011.
“If next year for some unknown reason I just don’t want to do it, then I’m done,” Cnossen said. “But just going off the past 12 seasons, every winter I’m pretty fired up and I don’t see that changing.”
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 TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.