IN THIS EPISODE…Dan Cnossen shares his incredibly heroic story of enduring the unthinkable while serving as a Navy Seal; stepping on a pressure plate that forever changed his life. He shares with Joe how he was able to take this seemingly insurmountable set back and pushed himself to train and become an paralympic gold medalist as well as a public speaker and leadership guru.
🔍 Breakdown with Dan Cnossen:
Chapter 1 (0:00): Introduction
Chapter 2 (1:53) Joining the seal team
Chapter 3 (10:35) Learning leadership ideals from seals
Chapter 4 (16:27) The BUDS experience
Chapter 5 (24:55) Mental tools used to get through BUDS
Chapter 6 (30:39) First years as a seal
Chapter 7 (36:37) What Afghanistan was like
Chapter 8 (41:18) The explosion
Chapter 9 (49:45) The hard road of recovery
Chapter 10 (57:27) Finding a future in sports
Chapter 11 (70:10) Mindset through challenges
Chapter 12 (77:24) Closing Remarks
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Joe Chura: (00:01)
Dan welcome to the anonymous there podcast. It’s so great to be with you today.
Dan Cnossen: (00:05)
Thanks Joe. Great to be here.
Joe Chura: (00:07)
So you have an incredible story and I wanna dive into, uh, a lot of it, I think an, an applicable place to start maybe with wanting to join the seal teams. And, uh, if you can indulge us into what led you to that decision. I think that would be a great place to start.
Dan Cnossen: (00:25)
Sure. I, I grew up in Kansas, a place, not known for proximity to the ocean, but I actually found myself in high school wanting to go to the Naval academy and I wanted to be a Marine. My father served in the Marine Corps for three years in the Vietnam war. He would, he did three tours. And although I don’t think by any means, he pushed me in the direction of the military. It’s just something I wanted to do. I was informed from books, Hollywood, and then just my father’s own experiences. He didn’t talk directly of his experience in combat in Vietnam, but he talked about generalities of life in the Marine Corps. And I just loved being outside. I loved playing sports. I loved being part of teams. And so this just seemed like the right thing to do. The question was, do you enlist or do you try to become an officer?Well, I wanted to continue my college education and so I gravitated towards wanting to go to the Naval academy where one fifth of the graduating class goes into the Marine Corps. I applied to west point as a backup, and fortunately I got into the Naval academy, the best one, and that’s where I went. And after graduating high school and showed up wanting to be a Marine officer, but the discipline of the Marine Corps very apparent in 1998 at the Naval academy prior to nine 11, the, the Marine Corps’s very disciplined focus on, uh, shining boots and creed cammies and, and all this kind of thing. It didn’t settle with me so much. And I had been in the C cadet core when I was in high school, and this is a kind of junior ROTC, but more geared towards people interested in, in listing in the Navy and in that program, which is wonderful.I went to great lakes, Illinois for boot camp, and eventually got to go to a two week seal training camp. And so I had this idea of the Navy seals in my mind, but I didn’t have perfect vision at the Naval academy. And so I thought that was a disqualifier. I didn’t know. I later found out that you can actually get corrective eye surgery, but by the end of my first year at the Naval academy, my circle of friends, really the people who I just was drawn to based on common interests and common personalities, they all wanted to be selected for the seal program. A couple of these individuals were varsity swimmers at the Naval academy. And I’m thinking I have no chance at selection because I was borderline scared of the water when I showed up at the Naval academy.
Joe Chura: (03:03)
Yeah. I, I hear that a lot from folks that, that, um, I have had Chad right on the podcast before and I’ve, I met Chad in person if you know, Chad and he, uh, went and, and wanted to be a Navy seal and he had never even swam. So it sounds like you had a similar experience that you weren’t super proficient in swimming. And, and for me, that would be, that would be mine too. And I imagine many people cuz uh, you know, if you’re running and you’re and you have to stop for a little bit, you’re okay, but you’re in the middle of the ocean and water. It gets a little scary. So, um, before we go back, cuz I want to ask a little bit about high school. What, what got you over that, that fear of the water or what made you wanna join the seals, knowing that you were in a proficient swimmer?
Dan Cnossen: (03:52)
Well, I’ll start by saying there’s no way I could have got through Bud’s, which is basic underwater demolition seal training. There’s no way I could have gotten through that right outta high school and, and many people do they graduate high school, they enlist in the Navy and within a year they’re already in seal training buds. There’s no way I could have done that because I just didn’t have the skills and the comfortability and the water. But I had four years of the Naval academy and for a good part of that time, just about every day I would go to the swimming pool. I would, my goal was to try to make the triathlon team. So I would often I would be working on my stroke, my crawl stroke, but I was also working on side stroke, which is the stroke. You have to swim in order to take the, the entrance physical test to go to buds.And, uh, this is, this physical test would be ranked at the Naval academy. So a lot of attention was on that. And so working on sidestroke working on underwater, swimming, breath, hold, all this kind of thing, working with my friends, pushing each other. And I did that for about four years and in I’m I’m proof, I guess that it, within enough time, anybody can get decent in the water because I really was bad at the, in the, in the water. So it just takes a little bit of determination and persistence and anybody can get there
Joe Chura: (05:10)
And going back to, to high school for a second, do high schools today, have the C cadet program. I’m not familiar with that OB obviously ROTC I’ve heard of, but is that an offering still?
Dan Cnossen: (05:23)
I do not believe. And it, and it never was an offering in my high school. I don’t know if it’s actually tied in with any high school. It’s maybe akin to like the, the boy Scouts where you may have a local chapter. In my case, growing up in Kansas, in Topeka, there was a Naval reserve unit. And I think that unit has since been disbanded. But at the time when I in the nineties, when I was in high school, so, uh, the sea cadets would drill similar to how Naval reserv would drill one weekend a month. You would go to the unit. In this case, the sea cadets would organize. They had a rank structure, all enlisted. The, the parents who were volunteering to do this were the officers and they, so they had different officer uniforms with a sea cadet patch. And in order to be part of this program, you had to go to boot camp in great lakes.Now this was something that was very much on the side of what I was doing in high school, but I really had this idea of training to try to go to the seal program. And so in the summer before my senior year of high school, I had already gone to the boot camp. I had to take that physical fitness test. And I mean, I think the, the time for the 500 yard swim in sidestroke was 1230 in order to be able to go. And it’s the same standard as, as for buds, but you’re in high school and I probably swam it in like 1225 or something. It was just right at the edge of not making it, but I passed the physical test, the running and the pullups and pushups. And sit-ups that stuff was easy for me. So I got to go to little Creek Virginia this summer before my senior year.And for this two week seal camp, most of it was just the fun stuff, shooting NP fives, doing, doing the obstacle course, hanging out with active duty Navy seals, going to the seal team reunion. It was centered around the east coast reunion, but in the beginning it was modeled after buds and specifically after hell week, we had a hell night. And I remember in high school just being completely unprepared for this running. I just remember with a boat on my head, a seal instructor in my face, and I had just turned 17 yelling at me because I was slacking off. I wasn’t carrying my share of the weight. And I’ll never forget that, that from that point on, I, I told myself, I am never going to be weak like that again, I, I really, I really in my mind failed. And so that experience was very useful as I then later entered the Naval academy volunteered after the first year at my, of the Naval academy, after my plebe year to go back to the seek at training and be the class leader and got to do it again, another shot.And I did a lot better as a class leader with some leadership responsibility that was very useful. And then it carried that forward into mini Budds, which you do the, if you are interested in getting selected for the seal program, you do this summer before your senior year at the Naval academy. And in order to go to that, you do a screening weekend at the Naval academy. So I carried all these experiences forward. And I think I just got a little bit better each time. It’s not like, it’s not like I was born with any innate mental toughness. I just had to kind of expose myself to difficult situations, get some confidence in, in sort of a stair step approach to this, uh, kind of crucible week in seal training called hell week.
Joe Chura: (08:52)
Yeah. Yeah. So we can move in into that, but before we do, what are some of the early things that you’ve learned or picked up from watching leadership and, and others in terms of the discipline and just really under other tools as a, as a youngster in high school? Like, were there some takeaways that you can recall?
Dan Cnossen: (09:14)
Sure. I, I remember in going to this kind of like boot camp in great lakes as a, I think it was after my sophomore year of high school, some only 16 or something like that. I saw in the great lakes environment, like people that were within my boot camp class, I don’t know why they were in leadership positions, but they were, maybe they just showed up early, but they were just, you know, just yelling and, and thinking that yelling constitutes being a good leader. I saw this a little bit at the Naval academy as well. And in addition to it just not being in my personality to be the kind of person that’s yelling and screaming, I also realized it was very ineffective as a leadership tool. In fact, I don’t, I can’t even call it a leadership tool. This is not leadership, just, just yelling at people to do their job.Mm-hmm <affirmative> and the kind of leaders that I really respected and wanted to emulate at the Naval academy. We’re tending to be the quiet, soft spoken type, the type who has their act together, but really is, is acting in a way that is, um, just, you know, kind of indicative of, of what I think a good leader does. And so I started to think that that that’s the kind of leader I want to be. You can actually learn in many cases more from poor leaders that you’re underneath as much, at least as you do from the good leaders, but, but certainly being exposed to what I consider bad leadership, uh, was, was a lesson that I carried into the Naval academy.
Joe Chura: (10:52)
Yeah. I’ve often heard, uh, calm is contagious and, uh, and being a calm leader, you’re almost, well, you are more effective at to your point than yelling at someone, getting them, you know, trying to push someone to do something versus, um, again kind of being collective and, and, and expressing some sense of stoicism. Um, so do you remember the first time you saw that in, in a, a leader and do you remember who they were and other characteristics that they embodied? Were they a seal or were they, um, another commander of sorts?
Dan Cnossen: (11:29)
Well, actually, you know, the first time I saw it was when, and I, I keep going back to the, seek it at seal training, which is not something I I’ve really talked about a lot, but it, as I unpacked this experience in high school, it was very formative. But when I went to the C cadet seal training camp, this two weeks training camp, the summer before my senior year in high school, in little Creek, Virginia, where the east coast seal teams were located, my class leader had just completed his plea beer at the Naval academy. And that is something that I later, because of his example, did I finished my plea beer at the Naval academy and became the class leader for the sec cadet two week class, but not knowing whether I was even gonna go to the Naval academy, finding myself at this two week training camp that I had worked for just trying to get a little bit better in the water so I could pass the swim test, absolutely afraid of what they were gonna do to me in the swimming pool, but very much intrigued by special operations, just from my upbringing and, and watching movies and reading books of Vietnam.But the class leader who just had completed the freshman year at the Naval academy was absolutely what I wanted to be as a leader. He was optimistic. He was quiet. He asked opinions of those in the team or in the class, and was really a role model for me. And so fast forward a year, I’m now at the Naval academy, of course, he’s there. He’s just, he’s actually two classes ahead of me now, but, uh, that the juniors there are really supposed to be the mean ones to the freshmen of any class of upper class. That’s sophomore, junior, and senior. It’s the juniors that are really yelling at the freshman for the entire year, the entire academic year, not just the boot camp phase, which is an indoctrination run primarily by the juniors. But so he’s in that class, but he wasn’t like that to me.He would actually sneak me out as a, as a freshman. I don’t re don’t tell the authorities at the Naval academy, this would, would sneak me out highly against the rules to take me rock climbing, no, on a Friday evening. And I would just pretend like I was doing this really long workout session on, on the, on the campus, the yard, they call it. You’re not allowed to leave on Fridays as a freshman. You can only leave from like 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM on a Saturday. You would take me to a rock climbing gym. And in, in rock climbing, I found I’m very uncomfortable with Heights as well, but it was really cool to be doing that. And just, I just think that, that, I mean, he didn’t have to do that. I was just some freshman. He knew me from the year before from this sea cadet camp.But I think that that was just a wonderful thing. I, uh, he, he unfortunately did not get a billet to go to buds when he graduated. And, and so at this point I had just completed my sophomore year and I, and was just absolutely shocked that he was not selected. He ended up going onto Naval aviation, flying helicopters for the Navy and, and that’s great. And I, I just, uh, thinking this, this is so competi, if he’s not getting a, a billet to go to buds who, who is, and, and I know his grades were not the best, but he just was such a good leader in that environment. And I think he would’ve been an amazing seal officer.
Joe Chura: (14:43)
Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. So, I mean, it just seems, you’re, can’t really swim. You have trouble seeing you, uh, realize you’re afraid of Heights yet. I’m going all in let’s let’s go to buds. So walk us through, um, I think many people understand what buds is. Obviously it’s been, um, popularized on podcast television shows, uh, but what, what’s something we wouldn’t know. And how was that experience outside of what kind of the normal person would perceive it to be?
Dan Cnossen: (15:17)
Well, I think it gets hyped up quite a bit. I remember being because of all this, I remember being very apprehensive. I had worked very hard. I, in the Naval academy, even before the Naval academy to get to this point, okay, now I’m finally selected within my class, 16 of us get orders out of the Naval academies, graduating class of over 900 people, 16 out of probably 45 or so, who are still in the running as, as seniors now have done everything, gone to minibus, done the minibus screener. Before that done the physical fitness test, been ranked, done the pure evaluation, done the interview in front of a panel of seal officers in senior enlisted. That was intimidating experience, but they’ve done all of it. And 45 of us probably, and they’re picking 16, I got, I got one of those spots. And on that particular day, I’ll never forget that day.Just feeling like just ecstatic. But then by the end of the day, I think I was nervous already thinking, oh my gosh, I have to go, I have to do this. Now I have to do it. I’m going it’s for real. And I, you, you self sort the 16 of us divided into three classes cause we cannot all go into one buds class and I was gonna go in the first class. And I think that that was a good strategy. I didn’t wanna see my Naval academy classmates in front of me in buds that is just, let’s just do this right away. I moved out to Coronado, California, and the six of us from the class were crammed into a small apartment in Imperial beach, 20 minutes, south of Coronado on the silver strand to, I think so much of buds has been popularized as you, as you allude to, but it’s, it’s just, it’s long.And, and I think, I thought that every day was, was training, but you actually get the weekends off, which they’re not totally off. They’re physically off the you’re not around instructors, but you do get weekends off, which I thought was surprising. I didn’t realize you got the weekends off. Well, okay. This is like a Monday to Friday thing. The very end when you go to San Clemente island, okay. That’s three weeks of continuous training with no weekends off, but you do get weekends off. You have time to recover. You need that. You are often sharpening knives, painting helmets, cleaning your room for getting ready for Monday, but you still have it off. And so that, that was a big surprise to me. And the other thing is that the instructors give you every tool that you need in order to pass buts. You just have to apply those tools.They teach you everything. They teach you how to run in soft sand. They teach you how to swim, how to swim with fins, how to do the underwater swim. They give you mental tips to get through hell week. They do all of it. It’s just, you have to take this and apply it. And if you do that, you will get through, uh, I didn’t think that they were by no means, are they holding your hand? But I didn’t think that they, they gave you all of the information that you need to know in order to get through.
Joe Chura: (18:20)
What was the toughest thing about it?
Dan Cnossen: (18:23)
The toughest thing about it for me? Well, I would say it, it was the only thing that I came close to failing in, in that regard I was life saving and you know, I, I actually pool competency is in second phase. That’s worth the dive tanks and you’re getting exposed to underwater problems from the seal instructors. I actually did really well at that. And I did, I did fine on the 50 meter underwater swim. I did fine in the underwater, not tying as you can see the, the common theme, the things that I was worried about were all had to do with being underwater. I had, I did not care about, I was also a little concerned with the obstacle course because of the height, specifically the cargo net, and then the, um, the, I forget what they call it, but the, the tiered platform from which a rope comes down, you have to kind of commando crawl down it, uh, that also kind of worried me, but just from the Heights, but really I didn’t care about or told myself I don’t care about the running.I don’t care about running with the boats on my head. I don’t care about the logs, any of that kind of land based stuff that doesn’t bother me. It’s the water and life saving is this really, it’s kind of a drown session. You’re trying to apply the techniques that the instructors have taught you in order to swim the instructor to the edge of the pool. But my instructor was a, at least he, he, he seemed like he was a 250 pound linebacker. He played college football and he had dive weights on a belt around his waist. And he sit pretending like he’s drowning in the water and I’m supposed to give the proper lifesaving technique. And I remember I got him back to the edge of the pool and he said he was under water the whole time fail. Okay, I have to do it again. I got another, maybe not that particular instructor, but a different one again, fail. So now I’m up from the third try. And this is like, you know, if you fail this, you’re out of your class, you go before a performance review board where they decide whether to keep you in training as a rollback. So you go back to the next class waiting three months for that, or you’re outta training. You go to the fleet, this is done. And so, I mean, it’s all on the line right now. Third try life saving.And I had practiced over the weekend and had told myself, it doesn’t matter if I drink half of this Olympic size swimming pool, I am keeping the instructor’s head above the water, whatever it takes. And I just, I was nervous, but I, I did what I needed to do. And I got, you know, to the edge of the pool with the instructor. And it’s that critical moment that you’re gonna say pass or fail. And he said, pass, I was just so relieved. And, but beyond that, there was a moment in hell week where I really was pushed to my limit. And, and there was a combination of pain and frustration. And I didn’t know when the event was gonna end. I was in an, um, just an unspeakable unspeakable amount of physical pain. And that was a moment where from frustration, I might have just, I might have succumbeded to the temptation to just screw this.I’m done, I’m outta here, you know, but I didn’t. And I got through that particular moment, it was under a telephone pole. My arms felt like they were gonna rip out of the shoulder sockets and it just, we were in last place in a race. And I had instructors in my face and they were just yelling at me. They’re gonna kick me outta the program. I’m a horrible leader, all this stuff. And, uh, why can’t I get the team to perform better? And I let it get to my head. And, and just my mental thoughts were just snowballing in a bad, bad place. And I started just, you know, focusing on taking a step and taking a step and taking a step. And I think really that focus on the process on what’s right in front of me on the mechanics of what you need to be doing that can to improve your situation, to make this law go forward.Instead of thinking all these thoughts that I, I kind of found this out, and I think anybody who goes through hell week learns to block out some of these negative thoughts that you gotta just focus on what’s right in front of you. And I learned that lesson, and that was a very valuable lesson for when, when events that are maybe out of your control. And you don’t know when they’re gonna end when they’re, when this is all occurring, that you can just focus on, on, uh, technique in ski racing, uh, focus on mechanics of what you can be doing right now to get through this moment. And that is, I guess, the essence of being in the moment as they talk about being in the moment and it’s brought about in this case by physical pain. But I think it’s a very valuable tool that can help people.
Joe Chura: (23:10)
Were you telling yourself just one more step or were you setting like micro goals to say, I’m gonna get to that post or landmark and, and then create another one? Or what were the, some of those tricks that you actually used?
Dan Cnossen: (23:22)
Sure. It was, it was at night, middle of the night on the beach. We were heading north in the silver on the silver strand, that eight mile long strip that connects Imperial beach, California to Coronado in the buds compound. And I had no idea really what time it was. And I had no idea when the race was gonna end. And we are in last place, as I said, it’s soft sand. And there weren’t really markers. I do think that a visual approach would’ve been, been useful, make it to, you know, make it to that gate or make it to that fence post or something like that. But it was the middle of the night. You could hardly see anything. And so I was just kind of telling myself, you know, at first it was like, okay, take some steps. You can quit if you want, okay, take some more steps.I’m not ready to quit. Take some more steps, yell some encouragements to the team. Okay, take some more steps, you know, this kind of thing. And then it, and then I just was that, that was taking my mind away. You know, you know, yelling out encouragement to my teammates by name, focusing on that, that helped it take, take my mind away from my own struggles in my own pain and frustration that helped the person I was at the far left end of this telephone pole, the person to my right, just it, his arms had pretty much given out and this log was AB normally heavy. I don’t know what the, what the hell was wrong with it, but I mean, it was like weighed two times more than what they normally weigh. And I think this was a trick that this instructors were doing and that they knew that this was going on, but we were in last place and it’s not a good place to be in hell week because when you’re in last place, you know, when the race, first of all, the instructors just swarm on you with the megaphones.But then when you do eventually finish this race, you get hammered. Now, in this case, the punishment was actually rest for me because I had told myself that anything is better than being under this telephone pole, but they wanna drive home. This lesson that losing in combat has dire consequences. You have to find ways to win, whether it’s cheating and if so, don’t get caught. But also just in your mind, finding the mental strength to carry over into physical strength and performance, to, to win, to win these races, cuz losing is not. And if you, if you string together a bunch of losses in how you’re, you should just making your life so much worse than if you can be one of the teams that’s winning. And then so then you get a little bit more rest while the other teams are getting punished and going to the next race. And you’re a little bit more fresh. You can win that race and then win the next and win the next. And it’s, that is a much better hell week experience than being at the back and losing everything. But, uh, I, I think that ultimately when I got through that telephone pool race and I did, I didn’t quit, none of my teammates quit in that moment because if they did, they don’t stop the race and add a couple to, to make sure you have seven people. Like if two people stepped
Joe Chura: (26:17)
Out. Yeah. It just makes the pole heavier. Yeah.
Dan Cnossen: (26:19)
Oh, oh. I mean we needed everybody to hang in there. It quit later, you know, do not quit now. You’re yelling at people. Yeah. But, uh, I didn’t, I didn’t have the slightest thought of quitting for the rest of the week cuz I’ve just, I got through that experience and everything else by comparison seemed rather easy.
Joe Chura: (26:35)
So ed, as a leader, two, two questions, one, um, how did you motivate your team cuz you were leading that team and you guys were in last place. So what do you, what are some things that you, you say to them to either get them, to push, get them to hang on. And then secondly, just, you know, you came into this as an officer. Did you have more of a target on you because of that
Dan Cnossen: (26:58)
You do have more of a spotlight on you as an officer in Bud’s training and Budds is not a leadership school. However, if you are an officer failing at a leadership that this just accentuates the spotlight that’s on you and you can be driven out of the program for just not, not leading well and, and also fundamentally at buds you’re, you’re, you’re leading by example. So if you’re, if you’re failing things as an officer, this is just, it’s not a good example that you’re setting. Uh, so I do think however that as an officer going through buds, if you own this leadership role and really take it upon you to be a good leader, it actually makes your experience a bit easier because you’re focused on your team, how are they doing? And that’s a trick you can say, Hey, you know, Billy, we need you to give up, give it a little bit more, come on, don’t quit.We need you. We need you, you know, calling out someone by name, that’s a technique in the moment of stress, like, you know, a law race or under a boat. You can, you can do that. If you’re thinking about your team, the welfare of the team, how are we doing? How is this person doing? He seems pretty quiet right now. I’m gonna try to pep him up what that does in addition to helping this person in helping the team, it actually takes your mind away from your own pain and discomfort and struggles. And so that really, uh, that was a good leadership lesson for me that, uh, fundamentally leading by example is important. And, and as an officer in the seal community, you have to have your, your, your, uh, your basic skills together. I mean, you’re gonna be judged based on how you’re shooting, how your kit looks, your physical fitness, your land navigation skills, competency. This is, this is just a base level for, for an officer to have.
Joe Chura: (28:54)
Yeah, no that makes, uh, that makes a lot of sense. So you’re you get through buds? You’re I know there’s a lot more training you have to go through before you get your tried in to become a seal. Um, then you’re on the, you’re in the seal teams from 2003 to 2009, walk us through kind of that experience. Um, and then we’ll get to what happened in 2009.
Dan Cnossen: (29:24)
Sure. I finished all the training and now I’m just, I guess, officially a seal, but you show up at a seal team and you’re just a new guy. And on top of that, a new guy officer, and in this case, this meant doing a lot of, of paperwork administrative things. I started deploying as a junior officer. I wasn’t initially in a platoon. And then I came back from the first deployment, which was not to Iraq or Afghanistan. I thought because nine 11 happened my senior year at the Naval academy. I thought if I get selected for and get through seal training, I am going to Afghanistan and that’s what Navy seals do they go where the war is? And at the end of the training, after not that long after I finished buds, the invasion of Iraq happened. And so now I’m thinking, well, okay, it’s either Iraq or Afghanistan, but my first deployment was to Southeast Asia, the Pacific and well, that seemed a little weird.Okay. What about the next one? And then you have to go through an 18 month platoon workup, which is great for me, still a new officer, learning the tactics, techniques, procedures, standing, operating procedures, all of this bit of little bit of leadership, exposure of seals. And that’s all good selected to go on another deployment to Southeast Asia. Now this may surprise some listeners because they’re thinking the same thing I was thinking when I went through the, you know, buds, I’m thinking we’re getting ready for war and, and you do train for war, but the nation sometimes needs platoons in the seal teams and, and special forces teams to go to places that are not always hot combat. And so you’re training other forces, this kind of thing. And that’s, those were my first two deployments. And my third deployment was as a sort of in a disassociated tour.So I was not in a seal platoon, but I was supporting platoons in intelligence gathering activities. And I deployed to Iraq. Uh, but really, you know, I didn’t see combat, I went on some operations, but no shots fired. And so, uh, to me at this point, I’m thinking I have not been in com combat to me means a gunfight and I’ve, I didn’t have gunfight experience. And now by the time 2008 comes around, I’m finally a platoon leader. And this is in an officer’s career, kind of a pinnacle milestone of, of leadership and also evaluation to see how you’re doing. But you’re the officer in charge of an at this time, 18 person seal platoon. And so for me, this was the big two year assignment. And honestly, if I could only have one combat deployment or the kind of deployment that really puts your training and leadership to the ultimate test, it it’s it’s, I would want it to be this one.And, and combat does that. Combat is the ultimate test of your training. And we had gone through our 18 month platoon workup and reflected to go on a deployment to Afghanistan where we would be put to this ultimate test of combat. It would be sustained combat based on the unit that we were gonna be replacing for months. And so I thought, okay, finally, things are starting to go in a little bit better direction because you’re comparing yourself to your peers, officers who I’d gone through training with, or just knew. And most of them had more combat experience. Just the kind of deployments that you train for. This isn’t is no fault of my own. It’s a function of just kind of arbitrary timing and tasking, but I felt a little bit insecure, you know, just because I didn’t have that combat experience, but I knew I was definitely gonna have it in Afghanistan. This is for real, it was a highly motivating thing for the platoon, knowing that we were going on this deployment, especially focusing on land warfare and assaults moving through and among structures that this motivated us, cuz we, we knew we were gonna, we’re gonna be in it.
Joe Chura: (33:24)
How are some platoons, uh, picked to go and others aren’t? Is it, is it lock? Is it based on skill? How does that work?
Dan Cnossen: (33:34)
I would say, I mean, I can’t put myself in the mind of commanding officer of a team. Who’s an oh five in the Navy or the senior enlisted the master chief of the team. It’s, it’s really it’s on them and their, their leadership of the team of which there are multiple platoons to decide. Now, if you have a demand, there’s also just the needs. And so the tasking order I’m sure comes down and you have to fill the order across multiple areas of operation. And, and if there’s one area of operation that’s really heavy in combat, you don’t necessarily get to put all your platoons there. It’s it’s you get to choose one or maybe two or maybe three or however, however, the tasking order is phrased, but you’re probably gonna put your, the platoon or the platoons that performed best in land warfare in or assaults into that combat deployment. So there’s a, a bit of that going on, but you don’t necessarily, you know, the, the phase of events in Iraq and Afghanistan is always changing. There were platoons that were going to do protective security details and maybe six months later, the platoon that’s going to replace them is just getting reassigned completely to go do direct action operations. So there’s timing and then there’s luck and there’s also performance as well.
Joe Chura: (34:55)
Got it. So then you, you, you get there, you’re excited. Cited. Was it like what you thought?
Dan Cnossen: (35:03)
Well, I got on the ground in Afghanistan in early September. Now I, as a platoon leader, it was important that I deployed in advance the rest of my teammates so that I could get on the ground early, see how the unit that we would be replacing was planning and conducting operations. So that by the time the rest of my teammates arrived, I’d be in a position of a few weeks on the ground, had gone on some ops, this kind of thing. So I deployed in advance of the rest of my, the majority of my platoon mates, my teammates. So linking up with that unit in country, they had an operation that they had planned and it was ready to go. They were just kind of waiting for us to get on the ground. We got on the ground, spent a couple days there and this is called a turnover operation where the incoming leadership I E me and some of the others from the task unit came in and we were just gonna kind of shadow on an operation, see how they planned and briefed the operation, who are the relevant players, cuz it’s not just us.You know, you, you, you’re working with intelligence, you’re working with the pilots. You’re coordinating perhaps with infantry units and other units that are in the battle space. So you’re just meeting all these relevant people sitting in on the brief, how is it getting planned? How is it being rehearsed, this kind of thing. And then you’re gonna go on the operation, not in a leadership capacity on this one, but maybe on the next one, maybe the, the, uh, outgoing unit is gonna shadow the incoming unit, this kind of thing. It’s kind of a gradual phased turnover. And of course these are dangerous operations because you have incoming and outgoing and this kind of thing. So earlier that day, we went into the mission briefing and went over the plan. And, and the plan generally speaking on this assault operation was to go after a Taliban, bizarre where IEDs improvised, explosive devices and, and a lot of drugs were being produced.So just a bad place, it’s kind of a, a Taliban stronghold in Southern Afghanistan. We’re gonna assault it. And this is gonna be about a 40 plus person assault conducted via helicopters, but with kind of, you know, sneaking in so to speak so that we could be quiet, do it, do it before or right around the time that it becomes first light. But prior to that, I’d be tasked in, in a kind of sub element. There were two key pieces of train around this bizarre that had a commanding position. I was tasked to go, uh, with this element of 10 or 12 people to get to the top of it and to hold that terrain. So we’re gonna have a commanding Overwatch position. And that generally was the plan when we had completed this mini objective we’d radio down to the main assault force. And then at some point prior to daylight, the target assault would commence. That’s generally the plan of this operation.
Joe Chura: (38:05)
Got it. So was the, this might be a silly off topic question, but like the topography, the, like what you thought of Afghanistan, was it, did it match up with your vision? What you’ve heard, the intelligence, or when you step on the ground, there is it completely surreal and different?
Dan Cnossen: (38:24)
I should say. And I, and I didn’t tell you this, but in my major deployments, I had not gone to Afghanistan, but I had done two minor augmentation kind of tours of two months each. So I had been to Afghanistan, not in a gunfight, been on some operations, but I was in a different part. Now, now I’m in Southern Afghanistan. And although I had kind of gone there doing the other augmentations, I had not gone on an operation like this, where I would most likely get in the fire fight. We knew, I mean, based on this operat and just in this area, we knew on this first operation and, and, and understandably incorrectly, they wanted to expose us to a fire fight because this is what we’re gonna be doing. You know, this is a turnover operation. The incoming leadership needs to know what it is like to be in a fire fight because you need to marshal those resources. You need to know how to do it. And so we knew we were gonna get into a fire fight. And so this is, this is to that extent. Yes, it’s a little bit new. I had been in-country before kind of knew what it looked like. Uh, but, uh, but I think in the past operations, it was like, if everything goes, well, there’s not gonna be a gun fight, but on this one, we knew there was gonna be, and, and it would most likely be in the daytime.
Joe Chura: (39:41)
Got it. So walk us through, uh, what happened that night then?
Dan Cnossen: (39:45)
Sure. So we en ended the briefing and at some point we went to the flight line to load the helicopters at two helicopters and we took off and it was, I’d say, as I recall, about a 35 or 40 minute flight, you know, you’re sitting on the helicopters for a while. You get off the back and they depart, and then we started foot patrolling and, uh, we’re, we’re moving with a sense of purpose, but trying to be quiet. And when we got to the point, I remember the element that I was a part of detaching from the main assault force. We went to the hill that overlooked that target compound the bizarre. And I would say it was about a 15 minute hike to get to the top of the hill. So, I mean, it’s a, it’s a big hill. It’s commanding hill. It’s a unique terrain feature.We’re working our way to the top kinda going single file. We were following a Navy explosive ordinance disposal technician. Who’s sweeping the ground for anything buried. And the rest of us are covering this individual. And as we move towards the top, there was actually an old Fort from the time when the Russians were in Afghanistan. And this Fort now is kind of a crumbled structure, but it still could have people up there taking cover, you know, concealed. So we’re very much at the ready and moving forward. I was looking through my night vision goggles and taking a step. And then all of a sudden there was just this flash of light under the night vision goggles. And I was on the ground. There may have been an elapsed period of time where I was unconscious, but I don’t recall that. I just remember being on the ground, realizing a bomb, probably went off and, and it did.I stepped on a pressure plate. Pressure plates are buried underground and you know, the weight, my weight made a connection and the bomb went off. Now. I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought something like this must have happened. I didn’t hear anything. I just saw this flash of light. And then I was on the ground. And then I couldn’t see anything. Cuz my night vision goggles were gone. They were attached to the helmet in the helmet. Must have been blasted off of my head. And I most likely was launched in the air. I don’t recall that the bomb was actually two, 105 millimeter artillery shells. They were wired together now together. I mean this would’ve vaporized me probably would’ve killed everybody up there. We were spread out, which was fortunate, but the second artillery shell didn’t explode. And then the, the first one only partially exploded.But I didn’t know if my teammates were okay or anything. And talking to people who were down below later at much, much later, they said there was a massive mushroom cloud of dirt. And they thought everybody up there was dead. And for a while, nobody was responding on the radio, but none of my teammates were hurt. I knew that I, I knew that I needed them and that I couldn’t save myself. I wouldn’t even know what to do. And I couldn’t even move. It was like my arms were working and that was about it. And nothing on my kit was where it was supposed to be. But my teammates were there and they were, they were assessing the situation. Basically the situation was this. I have a double femoral artery bleed. I’m not gonna make it more than two minutes unless they take immediate medical action.We are now compromised. Enemy knows we’re there we are in vicinity of a Taliban stronghold. There are likely, and indeed there were additional buried, improvised, explosive devices on this Hilltop and the sweeping device was not working or it wasn’t working for basic to detect what was actually buried. And so new techniques were gonna have to be used including digging. And so this was the situation that my teammates were facing and they responded and I have nothing but gratitude. I, I can’t even begin to ex express my thanks for what they did. I mean, they put their lives on the line. They responded like they were trained to do. And like I want to think every team guy would do. But you know, the reality is when I think about it, most of them up there didn’t know me. I, I had some friends, but we weren’t actually in the same unit.And, and there were actually people up there who did not know me at all. Like we met that night, you know, the day before, when I got on the ground in Afghanistan. So yet they still responded and that that’s, what’s so, so impressive. But there was this race against the clock, you know, it’s the tactical situation. You gotta get the helicopters back. You have to spin up all these procedures. The helicopter was getting really low on fuel. My teammates had to drag me off this Hilltop and I said, it was a 15 minute hike to get to the top. It’s a really long time to drag someone because they were initially, I, I recall them trying to pick me up and carry me to probably protect me. My bowels were spilled out. They had to apply all these tourniquets, but it wasn’t working. We were stumbling and, and tripping and falling.And so they went to kind of the body drag grabbing me by the shoulder straps of my kit and over the sharp craggy rocks that were constituting, this hill, top. And it was, it was just so much pain. It was all like really could do to try to stay awake. And that was, that was my effort. Uh, just dealing with the pain, trying to stay awake and then hoping I can get on the helicopter. And I didn’t think about dying. I, I do remember this experience and just those thoughts, weren’t my head because I think just the sheer amount of pain that I was in, but they did get me on the helicopter precariously, close to it, having to leave from lack of lack of fuel. You know, they can’t, they can’t stay overhead forever. So it was just a, a real, I think every everything from, from the moment I stepped on that pressure plate, everything lined up in a way such that I could get out of there, but then there’s this whole other medical situation now that is completely outta my control.
Joe Chura: (45:40)
Well, Dan, I’m so sorry that happened to you. And it’s, um, it’s just incredible to hear the story and, and how you fought and how your, your teammates and, you know, I’m, I’m glad you said it, cuz I’ve studied your story a bit and knew that it wasn’t necessarily your, uh, platoon that you were, you were in charge of. These were essentially, I don’t wanna say strangers, but people you had just met, which is, which is what you just alluded to and for, for them to step up and for you to, to fight through is just absolutely incredible. Um, you, so you, and the fact that you remember all this too, is a bit, is a bit, uh, uh, really interesting. So do you recall everything including getting on the helicopter and the flight back as well?
Dan Cnossen: (46:31)
I recall being dragged on the helicopter and shaking my friend’s hand and he was the platoon commander that I was shadowing and I knew him well and, and we’re, we’re very good friends and he responded his leadership. I don’t recall the ins and outs of what he was doing, but just talking to people after. I mean, he was cool, calm, collected, and he performed, I owe him a lot. I remember shaking his hand, he got off the back of the bur. They were staying to do the operation and the tail ramp went up. And then I remember there was a light in my face and then it, the next thing I know, I’m waking up. It turns out that it’s 10 or so days later, maybe 12, something like that. And I’m, I’m back in the United States at Bethesda Naval hospital’s ICU room. But I didn’t know any of that.I just, the next thing I know I’m waking up and my mother is right there looking at me and I was thinking, oh, this, this is, I, my mind was clouded, but just think what, what happened? Where, where am I? Because it, it was just like instantaneous time travel almost because you don’t, it’s not like falling asleep for 10 days and having this sense of being out for a long time. You just, my last memories were getting dragged on that helicopter. I’ve been transported back to the field hospital. Things were really close medically. I mean, professional doctors on site saying maybe I’m not gonna make it, but got a little better and a little better and a little better. And eventually, you know, going through the various echelons of care, working my way back to the United States. But I woke up in that hospital and then, you know, figuring out what had happened to me, figuring out I had gone through all this, this is starting this kind of a totally new, a new chapter, most of which is taking place in my mind.
Joe Chura: (48:22)
Yeah, no, that’s incredible. How many surgeries did you have to go through during that time period?
Dan Cnossen: (48:27)
I D I don’t know. It’s, it’s definitely in the dozens, I’m guessing 35 to 40, but I, I don’t, that may be low. It may be it, it’s probably not high <laugh> prob that’s, that’s not a, an yeah. It’s it’s, if anything, it’s probably low, but I went through many, many surgeries. Most of, a lot of, a lot of them happened in Afghanistan and then in Germany, and then they were happening when I was in this medically induced coma, and then they were happening when I woke up, I woke up and I found out that my legs had been amputated. I mean, that’s, that’s tough to hear. I think maybe I knew, but I don’t know. I, I asked someone whether they were gone. I wasn’t looking down that I had my Bo lower body was covered in blankets. And I, I know that my mental processes were distorted right now cause of everything I was on painkillers and stuff.But when that person said, yes, I I’ll remember that as well. And that it, it is just hard to hear that it’s hard to then think about it. It’s hard to think about what is your life gonna look like? And, and then I found that I actually have a lot of other things going on that are the least that, that make the double leg amputation. The least of my concern right now that most, most of that I’m alluding to is actually internal problem, internal injuries. Uh, this blast essentially hit me from behind between my legs. And so I had a massive wound basically through my rectum. I mean, just blew out. You know, my bowels had been hanging out. So all of this, my bladder had been burst. My urethra’s gone. I have a colostomy bag, a bladder bag, all this stuff had to be put back together internally.The doctors. I mean, I, the gratitude for them, they, many of them are nameless and faceless people. Other, although once I’ve woken up, I, I now know my doctors and they, and they were awesome at that level. At that time, in, in 2009 at Bethesda and at Walter Reed, they were two separate hospitals, but the doctors were kind of, you know, going back and forth. And they, they had so much experience at this point and they were so good at what they were doing, that I owed them a, I owed them for the length of my limbs, that I didn’t have some sort of an infection that can then now next thing I know I’m amputated through my hip. So this is routine now of surgery, surgery surgery three times a week. I’m, I’m doing 25 to 30 something hours a week of surgery. Time, week after week in the ICU, it was tough. No doubt.
Joe Chura: (50:55)
And Dan, at this time, I know your, your mother was there and I know your sister played a big part in your care later. Were, did, were you married or do you have any children at that this point?
Dan Cnossen: (51:08)
No, I was, I was single and that’s kind of the way I liked it as a seal officer, just, uh, focus on deployment, focus on my job. I, I was of the mindset that as a platoon leader, leading troops into battle that I, I just didn’t want any distractions. Now, of course, my mother and sister are very important in my life and this, this put them through a lot. My sister had just moved to New York city, graduated college. She was just 22 years old at the time. And she quit her job to be my caretaker because it came up very apparent to her as a nurse that I’m gonna need some help. And it’s gonna take a long time. And my Mo my mother had been, uh, given a lot of vacation, uh, employees donated vacation fellow, you know, coworkers donated vacation time to her, you know, peoples really stepped up.They, they were in their own stressful environment. In addition to what had happened to me, I remember the day that I woke up and out of this medically induced com. There were dozens, I mean, 60, 70 people in the, in the waiting room trying to come in, you can only come in the ICU room two at a time. And so it’s just taking forever and all these people with good intentions of doing the right thing, but creating a stressful environment for my mother and creating a lot of just visitors coming through my room, which meant that I didn’t have much time to sleep and sleep, sleep, and nutrition were a major, major problem at this time because I had an NG tube couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, couldn’t take a sip of water fed by IV hydrated by IV cuz my bowels weren’t working. So this NG tube was decompressing my stomach. So, so the IV, nutrition’s not really a lot. I shrunk down to kind of, you know, skin and bones and not sleeping. So this, this is a major, major problem, not out of the woods yet by any means.
Joe Chura: (53:02)
And when you’re going to sleep at night, thinking about what you had just went through and what your future looks like, what were I, I mean, I can’t imagine not having a ton of struggle with that. What got you over it? Or what were some of the things that you were thinking about?
Dan Cnossen: (53:21)
Well, in the beginning I, I was having, in addition to difficulty sleeping, it seemed like I, I, I was spiraling downward into, in abyss of, of delirium. Actually. I, I remember one night, well, I don’t remember that. I, I remember the nightmares of this night. Let me put it that way. But I found out later that the ICU nurse on shift ICU nurses at Bethesda Naval hospital are pretty, pretty experienced. They they’ve seen a lot that, that nurse at five or six in the morning called my sister. Hey, you got, you gotta get in here. Your brother is, he’s not doing well. I had slipped into like a basically opioid induced nightmare of delirium that I couldn’t get out of. It was this just awful night. And I mean, these, these I, and calling them nightmares, isn’t really accurate because that implies the, a differentiation between being awake and, and being asleep.But this, this is like, I’m awake and I’m in this thing and it is, it’s not good. It’s, it’s being on patrol and night vision, uh, with night vision goggles in Afghanistan, it’s getting dismembered limb by limb. It’s my platoon. Mate’s calling me a coward cause I’m not on the deployment with them. It’s just this awful stuff that is just racking. Me and my sister came in. I, it, eventually I got out of this and I got into kind of a better medicine for me because I was in a lot of nerve pain and I needed to be on something. But, but the particular medicine that I was on, wasn’t really jiving with my mind. But, but this was, this was very, very difficult, but I, so, so got through that, got over that started to, uh, work towards being able to eat and drink, uh, failing those tests, but eventually getting that NG tube out, eventually getting out of the ICU.Okay. I got my own room now on the combat ward fifth floor, and this is, this is progress. I started to just kind of focus on progress. I knew there were gonna be setbacks. Many of which would be outta my control. People were telling me that, you know, this isn’t just like every day’s gonna be progressive. It’s there’s gonna be regression. You’ll have setbacks. There were, but I could focus on progress and goal setting for me. This is where goal setting in my life. It really became evident how powerful it can be. That my goal was to get in a wheelchair. When I get in this wheelchair, I am going to do laps around this hospital and I’m gonna do miles and miles and I’m gonna be rolling because movement and motion. And self-powered Mo this is all very important to me, but being able to set those goals, that was everything for me mentally.
Joe Chura: (56:04)
Yeah. That’s that is truly incredible. And, and at that point, is that like the turnaround, when you, when you really started to focus on what the future looked like, and then eventually that led you to what we’ll talk about next? Uh, the, the Olympics <laugh> I know there’s a, there’s a long road between those two things obviously, but how did you go? I guess this is a better question from that point in time to fast forward, like two years later, and you’re now competing and you’re learning a new sport and fast forward a few years pass past that. And you’re, uh, you know, winning the gold medal in the Olympics. It’s truly incredible bridge that gap for us.
Dan Cnossen: (56:54)
Well, oh, well thank, I mean, yeah, the gap, it was, it was like nine, nine years, but it, it, there was never a turnaround time in the ho there’s never a day that I was just like, oh, I am over the hill. And now everything is gonna be smooth, sail. It was never like that. I, I remember after being discharged from the hospital as an inpatient thinking, okay, now I’m an outpatient. I’m living out in town with my sister. She’s driving me in every day for physical therapy. Learning how to walk on legs. Got the prosthetics they’re short in the beginning. You’ll eventually get knees later. This is great. I I’ve got some momentum. It’s awesome. And then all of a sudden, my stomach starts getting bigger, a little bit bigger, a little bit bigger. What’s going on. Eventually I look like I’m pregnant and my sister is, you gotta go.You gotta go. And this was a time in the hosp. Like I was, it was the holidays actually. So I wasn’t going in on a daily. And it was like, I tried to drink some water and I would throw it up. And I look like I’m pregnant, like six months pregnant. What, what, what the hell is going on? And she’s like, you are going in. I didn’t want to go in. I’m like, they’re gonna put the NNG two back in me. I don’t want to do that. You’re going in. And so I go in and, uh, it’s now by the time I’m admitted and everything there happened to be a major snowstorm hitting DC. That that night I went into an emergency surgery that was 14 hours. And I came out of that in the hospital, in an inpatient, my Stu my abdomen completely cut open again, vertically, all that core work I had done, it’s all gone.And, uh, you know, I was, I was just backed up my bowels, weren’t working. And so this is a major setback and NG tube is back in. I thought I was over that, but you know, it’s just one of these things outta your control. What can you do eventually getting better again, eventually getting back to the point where I was, but that was gonna take is a few weeks of setback, maybe a few months. I don’t know, but, you know, I just focused on the prog progress. And when I did get the prosthetic legs, I, uh, I, I thought of it as, as being a sport that I could, I could do. It’s it’s training. You know, I know if there’s one thing I know from my time in the seal teams, it’s not necessarily, it’s not gun fights, but it’s training. It’s training to be better.And every time you complete a cycle or a deployment, you start back up again, you train from the basics and you work your way up. Now I’m just 29 and turning 30 and working on the basics, walking, I’m gonna eventually get prosthetic legs that allow me to run. I’m gonna focus on that. And when I did get them it’s training, I’m gonna start at the basics, running a hundred meters, running 400 meters, trying to run a mile continuously trying to run that mile faster, trying to run a 5k, signing up for the army, 10 miler, having my platoon mates come and run it with me like that was meaningful. But all this stuff is, is training it’s training. That’s what it is, what it does for my mind is that I can focus on what I’m gonna do today to make myself better and training eventually migrated into training for the ski team.I, I had been exposed to CrossCountry skiing for so many reasons. CrossCountry skiing is the right sport for me, combining that with, by Athlon skiing and shooting, being in the woods, being part of a team, physicality long term goals, training for those goals, putting your skills to the test overseas. All I could go on and on about why I, I got into the Paralympics, but specifically CrossCountry skiing and by Athlon. But, but that, it just, it just was training. And, and I love training, and I think many people can talk about this, but I am a firm believer that athletes or anybody focused on some kind of competition or sport. You focus on the actual process. Like, like I say, you know, just taking a few steps at a time under that telephone pole or, or, uh, focusing on what I can do today. There’s a training plan.It all makes sense. It has cycles and you just start to see progress, but you put your faith in that. And, uh, I think that can tend to displace some of the negative thoughts that can be in your mind. If you just focus on what you need to do right now, what is the training plan have you do? And that’s, that’s eventually, you know, eventually this momentum that gets created it eventually did result in a gold medal in 2018 in, in, by Athlon in that. And even that was not the end result. It just that day things lined up. And there were people in my career who if they had been on the start line that day, they would’ve probably beat me if they had an average performance. But on that particular day on that start line, I had a good race and it was a, it was a race that, that was better than the people that happened to be on that start line. And so there’s a lot of things that are outta your control as an athlete, but whether you’re learning how to walk on prosthetic legs or whether you’re training for a sport, it’s just, it’s just focusing on what you need to do that day. And then you add that up day after day after day, they’re getting, they’re gonna be some setbacks, but when you look at the long term, if you stay focused, you will see a lot of progress.
Joe Chura: (01:02:10)
Yeah, no, it’s truly incredible. And I love what you say, just go through the process, take the steps. And, uh, you can generate outcomes by not focusing on them, by focusing on what’s in front of you, which is kind of the theme of the story and how you got through buds and how you’re became an Olympic athlete. I mean, it’s, it’s truly, truly incredible. Were there was the community, was, were there, were there a lot of similarities between the community of the by athletes and, uh, the Olympic athletes compared to kind of your teammates at buds? I could, I could envision there’d be parallels there. And, and did those people help push you to new levels?
Dan Cnossen: (01:03:00)
There are definitely similarities. I don’t know. I, I, I don’t know in the sporting environment, whether other athletes would give their life in a way that I did know that my steel brothers would, because I just were just not in that kind of environment. And that’s a major difference, but the, the similarities are, you know, you’re, you’re pushing yourself to the limit. You’re having to find out ways to confront pain. If you wanna succeed in cross-country skiing, you have to figure out how to approach pain, how to work through pain and how to, how to motivate, how to, how to actually self drive yourself into this. It’s, it’s different than in seal training or buds or something where external forces are kind of driving you that, but in there, you know, there, you don’t know when something’s gonna end. You don’t know how long it’s gonna take, but in a rate, I know exactly how long this race is.I’ve done all the training specifically for it. It’s just I now, and in that training, I have to push myself no doubt, and I can use my teammates. We can support each other, working, you know, pushing hard, working together. But race day, it’s an individual sport. It’s not a team sport. And you have to, you know, the distance, you have to cover that ground as fast as you possibly can in a smart way, not going out too hard too soon. But of course, when you cross the line, giving everything you have, and then if you’ve done that you’ve executed your plan. If the technique was right, you know, and you can take your mind away from the pain, by focusing on the technique on procedure, on process, on what you can be doing to be efficient, to move as fast as you can. If you’ve done all that, you gotta be happy with the result, whether it’s 15th place or whatever place it is, be happy with that because you executed your plant.But so I would say, you know, there are definitely similarities in cross country skiing. The elements can be very brutal, very cold. It’s typically a dry, cold, not a wet and cold, but you know, racing in Finland in December when it’s dark at nine, am it that’s tough there. The lowest limit for which you can race is actually really, really cold. It’s biting. I mean, it’s shockingly cold, but, uh, so it’s not like this kind of comfortable zone where they don’t, you know, it’s actually, it’s actually quite cold. And so you can, you can be, you know, fingers are absolutely numb. You’re trying to shoot a rifle. So there, I mean, there’s elements that are in the seal teams that are obviously very uncomfortable, you know, either desert heat or, uh, you know, very cold water off Korea or off Alaska, something like this that you just have to, you have to be able to operate in these environments. And with that comes some, some, you know, mental processes to, to be able to perform in those conditions. So I think those are the, the, the similarities
Joe Chura: (01:05:59)
You, you talked about really thinking through the process when you’re approaching pain. And, and I know a lot of folks listening to that still embark in a, a journey, um, of whatever, call it running a marathon or something that for themself, they get to a pain threshold and they may not wanna keep going. And kind of going back, you said, focus on the process, but do you, did you also acknowledge the pain that you’re, you’re feeling, um, in terms of, in terms of just saying yourself, okay, here’s what I’m feeling and, and talking to yourself through that, or what are some other techniques that you’ve used, cuz obviously you’ve been through more pain than any of us can ever imagine in our lives. And you’ve had to surely come up with just a ton of coping techniques,
Dan Cnossen: (01:06:47)
Absolutely. In a, in a ski race or for someone running a 5k or a marathon. I used to, I used to wonder, is it better to kind of zone out, take my mind away from this experience of pain or is it better to drill into it, to drill into it? And I’ve tried both in races and I think it’s, it’s actually better to just drill into the experience to actually enter into this pain. If so, so to speak, like to, to just become it. I, I don’t know if this makes sense, but in CrossCountry skiing, there is a lot of technique and you know, you’re dealing with the pain, but as a correlator to that, there there’s a lot of technique involved that there’s the tempo of your polling. There’s the, the timing of the core hit with the pole plant. There’s the follow through, there’s the glide like letting yourself to glide there’s terrain, whether you know, you’re climbing or you’re descending or on a flat.And if you can focus on everything that is technique related in correlation to the terrain that you’re encountering, that, that I, I think is drilling into it. And, and that instead of like, just taking my mind elsewhere, but checking in and saying, what can I be doing right now to improve this situation? And then, you know, you know that this is gonna end. It’s just a matter of time, but you can’t, you can’t escape it. And so you might as well just be in it, focus on what you need to be doing, what there, and for anything even running, running, running has a lot of technique. So my advice would be to really learn that technique, learn the technique that makes sense for you, learn how that technique relates to terrain. And, and then next thing, you know, you can like, you can, you’re drilling into the mechanics of the, of the sport that you’re doing. And, and there’s a, probably so many things that you can be focusing on that are actually improving your performance versus trying to escape this and, and be somewhere else that that’s not actually doing anything to make the situation better.
Joe Chura: (01:08:56)
Yeah, no, thanks. Thanks for that. That makes a lot of sense. And I’ve, I’ve found over the last like couple years when I’m had some pain in whatever I’m doing, just to focus on it and really just ask myself, like, what am I feeling like, is this pain, or is this mental and kind of working yourself through that? Um, it’s, I’ve found that to be very helpful. Um, I know you’re, you’re extremely humble and you’re very goal oriented. Um, I, and along the way, I know we don’t have all day to talk through this, but you you’ve got two degrees through Harvard somehow along this journey. Uh you’re now I think training for the 2022 Olympics, there has to be a moment though. And I know you looked at, and you’ve made comments about the medal, just being like, Hey, this is just this tangible, like, I don’t wanna say arbitrary, but you didn’t make a big deal about receiving like, like a medal. And I know like deep down, you must feel at least some sort of accomplishment, but when you’re, you were standing there and, and they put it on you, um, even though you’re still focused on the next thing, what was that feeling like? And did you have a sense of accomplishment at least for a small amount of time?
Dan Cnossen: (01:10:14)
Oh, a absolutely. I, I did. I did. And it, and it was a very proud moment internally, but I do have to balance this out with, you know, I have, you know, you, you do think about your teammates and not all of them had good races and, and this is, this is the thing in, in an individual sport like this, like, uh, okay. I had a good one and, uh, it’s, it’s not a team sport in the sense where if, if one athlete wins that everybody wins now, maybe, I mean, truly, truly, uh, selfless PE I have to admit some of my struggles are when a teammate does better than me. That’s tough, uh, because we are in competition against each other, but we’ve all worked together. So there’s an interesting dynamic and it it’s, it’s obviously a different dynamic than in a seal platoon where if the platoon wins, we all win individually.If my teammate in the platoon wins, we we’re, we are winning together, you know, this kind of thing. So, uh, you’re balancing it out. But so I’m trying to keep this internal. I’m not trying to be too externally happy or anything like that. And, and I do remember this was when I did get the gold medal in biathlon. It was the first race out of the series. And so I was very, and I had five more to go. So it race the next day, very, you know, focused on that. And I don’t know that I soaked in the moment to the full extent that I could have, but a few weeks later I got to throw out the first pitch at opening day at the red Sox game in Fenway. And I soaked that one up because, you know, it’s all the experience is over.And that, for me, that was more of my gold medal moment, uh, I think than, than right then and there on the podium. But it was, I mean, when the star Spangled banner was playing, I mean, that, that’s a, that’s a moment. And, you know, I’m thinking about this whole journey at this point, it’s, it’s feel like it was eight years of training and, uh, the coaches and just my own moving out to Colorado training out of a barn and putting in a lot of hours unobserved hours that doesn’t ever get seen, but, but that kind of work doing that work. And, and what was it that maybe move out to Colorado less than, you know, actually a one week, less than two years after this injury to, to start training for this sport? What was that? I don’t know, but I’m proud of it. And that’s the kind of thing I was thinking about when this was when this podium ceremony was happening. And then, and then just how lucky I am to still be here and to race, to represent the United States in this tough sport and how it’s just, uh, something I want to keep doing. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want it if I could do CrossCountry ski racing and buy Athlon for the next 20 years, I would that, I just, I don’t want it to end, but it does end.
Joe Chura: (01:13:03)
So what’s going on with the, the Olympics? What are you doing now?
Dan Cnossen: (01:13:08)
Sure. I competed in the 2022 Paralympic winter games recently, a few months ago in, in, at the, in China. And I don’t know that I would be around for the 20, 26 Paralympic winter games in Milan, Italy, although Milan sounds awesome in comparison, uh, just as a, as a classic ski venue, you know, China did an awesome job creating the venue and everything, but we had the COVID protocols. It just wasn’t the most fun thing, but I think Milan in 2026 would be amazing. But again, I, I don’t know that I would be there. I know that I wanna do another ski season. And the interesting thing for me in the games in Beijing recently was that I wasn’t performing to the extent I, I think that I had a couple really good performances, but it, the results were not to the same extent that they were in 2018.And so, you know, you’re kind of feeling this mixed emotions. A couple races I know were really good races, but they weren’t the same. The field is different, this kind of thing, not getting metals and dealing with all that because, because so much of everything is focused around metals. And I, I say this, I say, it’s all, it’s about your preparation. It’s about your training. It’s about focusing on the plan and then on, on race day, focusing on what you can do right now, focusing on technique, focusing on what you can control, being present, not worrying about something that may have happened that wasn’t ideal a couple minutes ago, cause it’s done. It’s over, you know, focus on right now. And you, your future moments in this race will be good and cross the line knowing you gave it your all, all that kind of thing.And then a race happens and I’m sixth place. I know I did my best. I know I’d raced this thing as hard. I was absolutely. It was a long race, 18 kilometers cross country, and yet still feeling a sense of, uh, disappointment, uh, because maybe it’s around external expectations. I don’t know, but I was experiencing all that at the very end. I was named to the mixed relay team four by 2.5 kilometer. And I was lake number three and we unexpectedly won a gold medal. I found that in my leg that I, in a sport that you do have to learn how to push yourself into deep, painful places that in that race, I, that leg, that I was skiing, that I was going perhaps deeper than I had gone before. And that is because it was part of a team. I have no, I, you know, several months later I know why this was happening.It was, it was, I was fighting for every second. We’re in fourth place at this point to try to get the anchor individual, the best turnoff that I could. And so I can honestly say that having won a gold medal individually and having now won a gold medal as a member of a relay team, that the experience of it as a member of a team was more special. That there’s a difference maybe in, you know, relay teams can be better than the individuals that compose this kind of thing. And in that maybe as an, in, as a metric of individual performance, it’s not the same, I don’t care <laugh> it felt better. It, it actually was a more special moment because this sport is so highly individual that to now be part of a team and to have that kind of a performance where we just EV you know, just had an awesome and to be part of a team. That’s what it’s all about. When you can feel like you’re part of a team, your performance will rise.
Joe Chura: (01:16:40)
Yeah. That’s, that’s awesome advice. And, um, it feels kind of serendipitous for you be because of your experience with the seal teams and how much of a community that is, and then you win gold in the relay team. So I, I love that that kind of went full circle.
Dan Cnossen: (01:16:58)
Joe Chura: (01:17:00)
Well, Dan, I, I can’t thank you enough for spending the time with us today and your, your story is, is incredible. You’re a hero in, in many ways. And, uh, I just, I just thank you for sharing your, your wisdom with, uh, with the audience today. And, um, I’m really looking forward to, to watching you and, and cheering you on in the future as well.
Dan Cnossen: (01:17:23)
I appreciate that, Joe. It’s, it’s been great to, to have this conversation and, uh, you know, I appreciate the opportunity for it.
Joe Chura: (01:17:29)
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Focus On Progress
with Dan Cnossen
Dan Cnossen is a Navy Seal, Paralympic gold Medalist, and leadership guru. Dan became a Navy Seal in 2003. Over the next six years, Dan was deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan and rose in rank to become the officer-in-charge of an 18-man SEAL platoon. In 2009, Dan was deployed to Afghanistan, into an area of heavy combat. There, on a night mission in the mountains, he stepped on an IED, losing both legs in the blast. He would later be awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor. As part of his rehab, he was introduced to the sports of cross-country skiing and biathlon. Never one to shy from a challenge, he eventually earned a spot on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team. At the 2018 Paralympic Games Dan stole the show, remarkably winning one gold, four silver and one bronze medal over a period of eight days earning the honor of Best Male Athlete of The Games.