Dan Cnossen is soft-spoken, humble, and embodies the values of never quitting despite the challenges that lay before him. His journey of accomplishment began when he committed to becoming a Navy SEAL officer, moving from his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, to attend the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. When he graduated in 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Dan knew he was going to war.
After two combat deployments to Iraq and one to the Philippines, his career as a Navy SEAL LT Commander changed one night during a mission in Afghanistan in 2009. “I was actually in advance of the rest of my platoon, this was at night in southern Afghanistan at a pretty remote location and I stepped on an IED and the blast was quite severe,” Dan recalled. “I was in a coma for about 8 days and I woke back up in Bethesda, Maryland, at a naval hospital. I can’t get out of a wheelchair, I have a ruptured bladder, colostomy bag, broken hands, shattered pelvis with an external fixator, two legs amputated above the knee, at that point it is pretty much ground zero.”
Dan was motivated to get back to where he once was operating at a high level so he approached recovery by taking one day at a time. “I told myself in the hospital that I am sick of being indoors all day. I was craving fresh air, craving the outdoors, and nature,” he remembered. “To see what kind of life I may have, I put all my effort into physical therapy for two years”.
Dan enjoys all sports that he can thrive in and provides a sense of challenge, but also feels a connection and receives healing through surf therapy. “When I surf I often don’t want to come back on land,” Dan said. “It’s quite nice to be on the ocean and kind of weightless, and feeling the energy of the ocean and being around other people. When I come back on land and I change out, I feel a bit more disabled but when I am out on the water, I don’t really feel much different.”
Dan said on a feature with the Boston Red Sox, “I’m really drawn into the sport of biathlon because it combined cross-country skiing, which was getting me back in the woods and pushing myself with shooting, which from the military background it made sense for me to be an athlete, but it was still moving and shooting so that’s why I do the sport of biathlon.”
In PyeongChang, South Korea, during the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games, Dan placed first in the biathlon and took home a Gold Medal. “It was so special to represent the US, the navy, the SEAL community.”
In the beginning of the 2018 Boston Red Sox season, Dan was invited alongside fellow Olympians to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the home opener at Fenway Park where he was greeted with cheers from fans and handshakes from players. Dan joked while standing below the Green Monster, “It’s hard to throw without calves or knees, I think I can get it, it’s not too far”.
Dan is a role model for adaptive athletes everywhere for his ability to overcome physical odds with grit, but to also continue achieving everything he wants to do in life, whether it’s graduating with an advanced degree from Harvard, competing in future paralympic games, building camaraderie through surf therapy with other veterans, Mr. Unstoppable can do it all.