There are a select few athletes who compete in both the summer and winter Olympics, and fewer still is the number of athletes who have won gold medals at the two. Para-athlete, Kendall Gretsch, holds this distinction having won two gold medals at Pyeongchang in 2018 and gold in the para-triathlon at Tokyo in 2021. With two Olympics in the span of six months, Gretsch was set for a big year.
In a TeamUSA interview Gretsch said, “When I got the news that Tokyo  would be postponed, and Tokyo and the Beijing 2022 Winter Games would be six months apart, that was terrifying. In my mind, I was going to have a much different lead-up to Beijing, but now [speaking in 2021] looking back, it is comforting. Transitioning between two seasons has been something I have done for the past five years, and I know how to manage that transition well.”
Gretsch was born with spina bifida, which resulted in her leg muscles not fully developing. She started competing in para triathlon in 2012 and had her international debut in para-nordic skiing in 2017 after she began training with the Central Cross Country Ski Association in Madison, WI as a form of cross-training for para triathlon.
Triathlon was first added to the Paralympics at Rio in 2016, though Gretsch’s classification of PTWC2 was not initially included. Thus, the Tokyo games were the first opportunity for her to compete in the triathlon at the highest level. In a nail-biting finish, Gretsch narrowly took the victory, earning her third Olympic gold.
With the start of the Beijing paralympics a little over a month away, FasterSkier caught up with Gretsch in Östersund, Sweden as she recovered from the recent Para World Championships in Lillehammer and prepared for the next round of World Cup races, which were scheduled for January 27th to February 1sts.
By any measure, Gretsch dominated the competitions in Lillehammer. She earned three gold medals, coming in the middle distance classic sitting, biathlon long distance sitting, and biathlon middle distance sitting events. She also earned silver in the long distance freestyle sitting race, finishing behind her teammate Okansa Masters. Despite these strong performances, Gretsch was hesitant to read too much into what they might mean for the upcoming Paralympics.
“It was good,” she said, “I think it’s kind of funny to have a World Championships in the same year as the games, just because you know that everyone’s focus isn’t necessarily the World Championships and that everyone’s really preparing for Beijing.”
Given that the World Championships and Paralympics are only separated by two months, Gretsch explained that athletes would be approaching the World Championships racing differently. “Maybe they’re coming in really tired, so I think it’s harder to gauge where you are from that, because it’s not the main event of the year for everyone.”
Furthermore, the Chinese team was not present at the World Championships, which is another area of uncertainty for Gretsch. “We know that they are probably going to have a pretty strong team in Beijing,” she said, “so that’s kind of the big unknown – not having the chance to race them ahead of time.”
That being said, Gretsch was pleased to have this set of races as experiences before Beijing because, “it’s a pretty similar format, in terms of the number of races and the timing of them. So just being able to practice all of that is good. It’s definitely a little bit of a confidence boost, but you don’t know how everyone was showing up.”
Both gold medals in the biathlon events were essentially earned thanks to Gretsch’s shooting. For the past several years, she has been living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and with her focus on the para-triathlon event in Tokyo, time to practice shooting this past summer was scarce.
“With COVID restrictions and the area where I train, I didn’t have access to as much [shooting] as I would like to,” explained Gretsch, “but I was able this fall to get in some shooting post-Tokyo, and then we had some early camps this year where I got to spend a lot of time in Canmore was was able to shoot there.”
Looking towards the Paralympics at the beginning of March, the expectations for Gretsch to win medals is high after her performances in 2018 and 2021. When asked how she manages both her own expectations and the expectations of others Gretsch responded, “It’s hard because I would say, I’m the one that puts the highest expectations on myself. I think [I’m managing expectations by] just understanding that we have a lot of racing opportunities in Beijing, and taking it race by race, hopefully using each race to learn more about the course and where you can make up the most time.”
Having competed at one COVID Paralympics already would perhaps give Gretsch a mental advantage by knowing what to expect in terms of rules and restrictions. However, as she said, “it seems like there’s more unknowns about how the restrictions are going to be compared to Tokyo.” But, Grestch did admit, “I think there’s probably some advantage of having the expectations around daily testing and mask wearing and all of that. Just having had that experience I think will be helpful. And really, just the past year or so of racing, it’s definitely been pretty complicated so, just more experience of how to deal with that situation.”
Recently the para program in the US has been growing, both in terms of numbers and in terms of the number of categories they have athletes competing in (for example, sit ski, vs. visually impaired, vs. standing with a limb deficiency). When asked what it has been like to be part of this growth and to have a bigger team at events like World Championships or the Paralympics, Gretsch was excited to see the team grow.
“We just have more depth in all the different categories,” she explained, “and I think one of the places where that becomes really exciting is for relays. We have the potential to put together some really strong relays, probably for the first time ever.” Relay teams are structured based on a point system that factors in an athlete’s classification and gender.
“I think that’s something that has our whole team really excited,” continued Gretsch, “the idea that we can have a competitive relay, and that’s something that people can really train towards, and hopefully contribute to be a part of that relay.”
The Paralympics begin in Beijing on March 4th. Gretsch will be taking part in both cross-country and biathlon events throughout the competition schedule.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.