From 3 to 16: Behind U.S. Paralympics Nordic’s Medal Leap in PyeongChang

Jason AlbertApril 10, 2018
Two American flags and a Belarusian flag being hoisted to honor the medalists in the men’s sitting cross-country sprint at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Americans Andy Soule and Dan Cnossen placed first and second, respectively, and Dzmitry Loban of Belarus finished third. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Joe Kusumoto)

Success to failure. Failure to success. Two trends of two extremes on the performance metrics on the international cross-country skiing spectrum. There are many in-betweens: scoring World Cup points with a top 30, top 10’s, any spot on the podium. There are the Olympic and Paralympic quads featuring a four-year buildup to North America’s singular focus on bronze, silver and gold hardware.

When considering how to develop talent, placing athletes on snow with the absolute best technology available, positioning athletes to medal, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Program is an enviable high-performance model. That became evident this winter during the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. U.S. Paralympics Nordic hauled in 16 medals in a week about a month ago.

That many medals for a single team borders on excess. Pursuing the perfection that leads to near-excess has driven the U.S. team staff and athletes for years. Back in 2006 in Torino, Italy, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic team earned three medals. In 2010, in Vancouver, British Columbia, they tallied one medal. In 2014 in Sochi, Russia, they claimed three. This year in PyeongChang: 16.

“I think we have a few factors to our success,” Eileen Carey, head coach of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic team told FasterSkier in a recent phone interview. “We’ve built the entire team — every athlete who has been engaged in the last several years and the staff that we have built are totally committed to the goal of the team. There are not a lot of egos. Everybody has a role. Everybody is really good at what they do, and everybody executes on race day.”

That goal and the team’s execution amounted to 11 medals total between two athletes, both sit-skiers. Thirty-seven-year-old Dan Cnossen entered six races: three cross-country, three biathlon. He medaled in each. Oksana Masters, 28, took five medals: two in biathlon, three in cross-country.

In the leadup to the Games, with buoyant media coverage of para-athletes and opportunities to brand themselves more broadly, the narrative of athletes like Masters and Cnossen were hard to miss. Masters endured a Ukrainian orphanage until she was almost 8. Cnossen is a retired Navy SEAL and a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor recipient. He lost both legs above the knee after stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol in Afghanistan in September 2009.

Biathlon gold medalist Dan Cnossen of the U.S. celebrates his win in the men’s sitting 7.5 k biathlon sprint on opening day of competition at the 2018 Winter Paralympics on March 10 in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Mark Reis)

Stories like those of Masters and Cnossen should make us appreciate for a moment our most basic gifts. Their stories are inspiring. That, according to Carey, misses the point when it comes to understanding what exactly manifested in PyeongChang.

“Sure, the Olympic and the Paralympic mission is to inspire people,” Carey said. “But the narrative about Paralympians has historically been far more about inspiration being the central storyline versus Olympians where the essential storyline as about their athletic prowess. The comments that I have heard about these Games are about the athletic performances of the athletes. Whereas in Sochi, and a lot what I have heard before, is a lot about the inspiration.”

(True to those sentiments, Velonews used the word “inspiring” to highlight this recent photo essay.)

Cnossen is a graduate student at Harvard. He receives some support from the school’s cross-country coach, but trains most often north of Cambridge Square at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont. There, Cnossen benefits from world-class biathlon instruction.

Carey explained that at last season’s 2017 PyeongChang test event, Cnossen performed better in the cross-country races there than in biathlon. As a world-class athlete, traveling several hours for countless four-day Craftsbury weekends and increasing his time spent training on the shooting range were some of the commitments Cnossen made, just like any other hyper-focused, hyper-driven athlete.

Carey also made clear what Craftsbury’s part was in developing Cnossen’s athleticism.  

“As a sit skier, you don’t carry a rifle,” she explained. “When you are shooting, that means 100 percent of the time, someone is on the range loading pellets with bare hands when it’s cold outside and handing you your rifle. Dan would shoot three or four times a weekend when he was there, and they supported him 100 percent of that time. He won a medal in every biathlon event. That is Craftsbury’s success as much as anybody else’s.”

Masters’s own drama unfolded two weeks before the Paralympics when she slipped and fell on ice. She dislocated her elbow and chipped all three bones that meet in the elbow. After being operated on at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, Masters remained a medal favorite in Korea.

She came to PyeongChang as an all-arounder in both biathlon and sitting cross-country. (Masters, also a multi-sport athlete, competed in rowing at the 2012 London Paralympics — where she earned a bronze medal — and cycling at the 2016 Rio Games.)

Oksana Masters (U.S. Paralympics Nordic) after winning her first-career Paralympic gold medal in the women’s sitting cross-country sprint at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Joe Kusumoto)

In her first race in PyeongChang last month, Masters took silver in the biathlon sprint (behind her U.S. teammate Kendall Gretsch in first). Those medals, Gretsch’s first and Masters’s first in biathlon, set the stage for more gritty performances and Masters’s five-medal PyeongChang bounty. Inspiring? Yes. But more to the point, both were athletically dominant.

Masters’s dominance came with a very human off-race. On March 13, during the women’s sitting 10 k biathlon race, Masters fell in her sit ski onto her ailing arm and missed a total of six shots for six penalty laps. While she skied the extra laps, another U.S. coach encouraged Masters to pull herself out of the race. The team’s staff was concerned about her elbow and wanted to ensure her health for her three remaining races.

“I sprinted down the course and just stood in front of her in the middle of the course and pulled her off,” Carey said of how she ultimately persuaded Masters to not finish. “Oksana thought she was done midway through the Games. We X-rayed her again and came up with a plan and taped her elbow in a way that would provide more protection.”

The next day, Masters rebounded with a gold in the sitting cross-country sprint and earned another gold and silver in the next two races.

Here Comes Soule

At the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, Andy Soule earned bronze in biathlon. His medal was the first Paralympic medal in the discipline for the U.S. team. Eight years later in PyeongChang, Soule, a 38-year-old Army veteran, who, like Cnossen, lost both his legs in Afghanistan, delivered the Paralympics equivalent to the “here comes Diggins” moment.

During the men’s sitting cross-country sprint final, Soule came into the last hill in sixth place. He then glided into fourth on final downhill before the last intensive double-poling push to the finish.

Andy Soule (r) capturing gold in the men’s sitting cross-country sprint at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Joe Kusumoto)

With lickety-split skis to match his upper body’s Thor-like power, Soule willed himself into medal contention. From literally out of the camera’s view and into front and center on the final stretch, Soule threw down and accelerated. Bronze, then silver, and at the line, gold came into play. The PyeongChang sprint win was Soule’s first-career Paralympic gold in three Paralympics — he also claimed bronze in the PyeongChang 12.5 k biathlon race. (Soule promptly retired from elite-level competition afterward.)

“Andy has spent a lot of time over the last four years doing a whole lot of stuff, like learning how to move fast on flats, which was something that we had identified from Sochi as being the weak link,” Carey said. “There was something otherworldly about those last 100 meters that was just incredibly cool to watch.”

Cnossen, Masters, and Soule symbolize the U.S. Paralympics Nordic team’s rise. Yet, Carey, along with the team’s high-performance director, John Farra, have been able to build a program that has positioned itself for future medals. Gretsch, 26, may be part of that future. She came to nordic skiing as a world-class para-triathlete and represents what Farra calls “talent transfer”.

“We are super proud with how our sit-ski program has evolved,” Farra said on the phone. “We are super proud that we can take athletes in a talent-transfer situation like Kendall and help her come from being a world champion in triathlon and have her transfer and learn the skills in a short period of time to now being one of the best in the world.”

In PyeongChang, Gretsch captured two golds in the first two races. She won the sitting biathlon sprint and the 12 k sitting cross-country events.

Winter Paralympic rookie Kendall Gretsch racing at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Joe Kusumoto)

The U.S. also broke barriers when it comes to the standing visually impaired (VI) events. Jake Adicoff, along with his guide Sawyer Kesselheim, raced to silver in the men’s VI 10 k classic cross-country event.

Farra explained that their medal was the first for the U.S. in a visually impaired race at the “modern” Paralympics. The VI classes were historically split between B1, B2 and B3 classes. (B1 athletes have the least amount of vision.) The different classifications are used as a descriptor of each athlete’s degree of blindness. Formerly, each classification of athlete competed against the same classification athletes. For example, in the past, only B1’s competed against B1’s. Today, that format is defunct, and all classifications currently compete against one another. An athlete’s finishing time is adjusted based on their severity of blindness.

As Farra explained, in the “modern” VI medals are harder to come by.

Adicoff, a student at Bowdoin College and a member of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), was competing at his second Paralympics. Kesselheim was a Paralympic rookie.

“They are a team,” Carey said of the Adicoff-Kesselheim pairing. “Visually impaired athletes and guides function much more, in my view, like a cycling team as opposed to a traditional ski racer. … The medal was won by both Jake and Sawyer. In that race, they worked together more effectively than I had ever seen them work together. They were more in sync; they were skiing closer to each other. There is a lot of challenges in guiding when it comes to the communication, and Sawyer is a great communicator. He is an amazing skier and athlete, but he is a great communicator and he has no ego. He was totally bought into being on that team.”

Guide Sawyer Kesselheim leads his U.S. teammate Jake Adicoff during the open relay on March 18 at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Mark Reis)

The first day of the next Paralympic quad began on March 19, the day after the PyeongChang Paralympic Closing Ceremony. Yet Casey and Farra kept an eye on 2022 by nurturing and investing in more Paralympic rookies by exposing them to their respective sport’s highest level of competition. Grace Miller (standing , Alaska Nordic Racing), Ruslan Reiter (standing, Outdoor Sports Institute), Joy Rondeau (sitting, National Sports Center for the Disabled), and Mia Zutter (visually impaired, CXC/St. Scholastica) participated in their first, yet most likely not their last, Winter Paralympics.

“Having a larger community of people that consider themselves para-nordic skiers is motivating,” Farra said.

In the recent past, Farra explained that identifying and developing standing athletes has been a priority. The U.S. has already been a leader in supporting sitting athletes and providing them with top-end, sit-ski technology.

“We have just scratched the surface of finding a couple of standing and a couple of VI athletes,” Farra continued. “That’s got us pretty excited about the connections they have to their local clubs and colleges, too. We were motivated to bring them to these Games so they could get a taste of what is out there and hopefully, they left absolutely motivated to live a professional athlete lifestyle and train hard with their clubs and their home college programs.”

— Alex Kochon contributed

The 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics men’s sitting cross-country sprint podium at the medal ceremony, with Americans Andy Soule (c) and Dan Cnossen (r) in first and second, respectively, and Dzmitry Loban of Belarus in third. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Joe Kusumoto)
Kendall Gretsch (r) and Oksana Masters at the 2018 Paralympics medal ceremony for the women’s sitting 6 k biathlon sprint after winning gold and silver, respectively, on the first day of competition in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: U.S. Paralympics/Joe Kusumoto)

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Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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