Dan Cnossen will be bringing a gold medal back to the United States after finishing the 7.5-kilometer biathlon more than 10 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher at the PyeongChang Paralympics.
It was just over eight years ago, though, when Cnossen was fortunate to come back to the U.S. at all.
In September 2009, Lt. Cmdr. Cnossen was serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as the platoon commander of SEAL Team One. While conducting a nighttime operation, he stepped on an improvised explosive device that fractured his pelvis and destroyed his legs.
When Cnossen awoke eight days later, he was in a bed in Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. Both of his legs had been amputated above the knee.
Now 37, the Topeka, Kansas, native would undergo 40 surgeries to repair damage and prevent infections, the Harvard Gazette reported, during a time when just relearning simple skills posed seemingly insurmountable challenges.
“First, I’m going to drink,” Cnossen told the Harvard Gazette about his recovery steps following his injury. “Then, I want to eat. Then, I’d like to get out of this bed. Then, I’d like to get in my wheelchair. At one point, it was so liberating to be in a wheelchair. And then I got my prosthetics, and I wanted to get out of the wheelchair.”
Before long, those goals evolved exponentially, and by 2011, he was competing in international Nordic ski competitions.
In 2014, Cnossen appeared in his first Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, after which he was recognized by former first lady Michelle Obama during a visit to the White House.
Although Cnossen didn’t medal in Sochi, a few more years of training and a little calming of the nerves appear to have done the trick.
“In the last Games that I did in Sochi, I let the TV screens and the announcer get to me,” Cnossen told TeamUSA.org. “Today I just focused on what I can do and nothing else matters. I crossed the line and I wasn’t even going to look at the board and I was pleasantly surprised at the end.”
One day after winning gold in the biathlon, he won a silver medal in the 15-kilometer cross-country event.
“I’ve already exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I’m very proud to represent the U.S. Today, I dug as deep as I could and went as hard as I could, and regardless of where I ended up on the result, it is my success to go as hard as I could.”
For his actions in Afghanistan, Cnossen received the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor. Since being medically retired, he has earned a master’s degree at Harvard.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.