SOLDIER HOLLOW — Daniel Cnossen never skied until he lost his lower legs in combat.
The former Navy Seal was recruited by coaches as he recovered from a double amputation and other injuries suffered in Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009.
"I was introduced to skiing when I met the coaches, and they recruited me to come to a camp," said Cnossen, who won his second consecutive U.S. adaptive (sit ski) 15-kilometer cross country championship with a time of 45:43.4 Saturday at Soldier Hollow. "I kind of got hooked on it."
Originally from Kansas, Cnossen loved adaptive skiing so much, he moved to Fraser, Colo., so he could train with the U.S. Paralympic Team in hopes of earning a spot on the adaptive cross country and biathlon teams headed to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Games.
"I've always liked endurance sports, "said Cnossen, who began running before doctors were even finished with the surgeries he needed to fully recover from the extensive injuries suffered when he stepped on an IED pressure plate while leading his platoon on a mission in Afghanistan.
"I like the combination of strength and conditioning required," he said. "There is a huge mental aspect to it as well."
Despite his excellent physical condition, learning to propel himself around a ski course with only his upper body was a bit of an adjustment.
"I felt like my upper body was not a very good engine. Until it became that, it was really hard to ski up hills. It was not much fun. In fact, I could barely tap my cardio system. But now that I'm stronger, it's become more of a cardiovascular exercise. In the beginning I could barely get up a hill."
Andrew Soule finished second with a time of 48:04.3, while Sean Halsted finished with a time of 48:45.
Beth Requist, 28, won her first national title in the women's 10-kilometer race with a time of 39:53.7. She edged Tatyana McFadden (41:22.6), who was second, and Kristy Vaughn, who earned the bronze (45:25.5).
Requist was a little disappointed that she fell twice during the race, but the former Southwest flight attendant was still excited to win her first national title.
"I was a snowboarder before my accident," she said. "I got out of the hospital in November and I immediately emailed the NSCD (National Sports Center for the Disabled) to find out about cross country and alpine." Officials told her she couldn't participate in alpine until a year after the accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Now she's not even sure she'll ski alpine, except recreationally.
"I love this," she said. "I want to compete in cross country. It's more challenging. It's very, very hard, and it takes a lot of hard work."
She said she turned to skiing simply because she missed the great outdoors. She broke her back a year-and-a-half ago while river rafting.
"I jumped off a 40-foot rock into the river," she said. "When I hit the water, I just hit it wrong. I didn't hit the bottom or anything. It was just a freak accident."
She said she knew right away that she'd broken her back because she couldn't feel her legs. "I was in shock and I swam back to the raft," she said. Requist never had a period of time where she thought she'd have to give up outdoor activities. It was just a matter of adapting to her new situation.
"I just wanted to get back outside, just do things, and skiing was the perfect way to do it," she said.
One of the most impressive moments of the day came when Alfredo De Los Santos finished in last place. He broke both skis on a hill in his first lap. After his coach pulled him from the ditch he slid into, he skied off on the broken skis.
He finished 41 minutes after the second-to-last competitor crossed the finish line. Not only did several able-bodied skiers join him on his last lap, but volunteers and other national team athletes crowded around the track's final 200 meters to cheer him home.
Only two of the 22 athletes didn't finish the 10- or 15-kilometer races.
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