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UP TO THE CHALLENGE

A FORMER NAVY SEAL, WOUNDED IN COMBAT, PUSHED HIS LIMITS IN PYEONGCHANG
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DAN CNOSSEN won five medals in the Paralympics—one gold, three silver and one bronze—but let's be clear: He does not compete for medals. He competes because he is a sick, twisted individual.

O.K., that was rude. But how else do you explain him? Cnossen says he likes seated cross-country skiing because it is "this ultimate test of how much I can suffer and push through the pain. I don't care about the results afterward."

The pain was not the first reason Cnossen started skiing. He started because he lost both legs when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL in 2009, and as he sat in Walter Reed afterward, he realized he missed two things. One was the outdoors: "I was craving just being in the woods, back in nature." The second was teammates.

"I probably only realized it after my injury, but I was just so connected to being with SEAL teams," he says. "It was an honor to be part of that community. I still am a part of it, but it's not the same. I really was missing that."

Cnossen was awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor from the Secretary of the Navy for his service. After that, he took up cross-country skiing, added biathlon, picked up a master's degree in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School, then decided to shame the rest of us by going for another degree—from Harvard's divinity school.

As you might have gathered, Cnossen is drawn to the tough stuff. It is why he joined the Navy in the first place. The challenge of cross-country skiing with no legs is even more severe than the able-legged can imagine. Cnossen says he is constantly "struggling with one voice saying 'ease back a little bit' versus another voice that says 'go harder.'"

Conditions range from hard to brutal. Cnossen says the 15-kilometer race in PyeongChang, South Korea, on March 11, one day after he won the gold in the 7.5-km seated biathlon, was "the hardest race I've ever done." It was a surprisingly warm day, and you don't need two degrees from Harvard to understand that heat softens snow, and cross-country skiing across soft snow without legs is a hell of a way to get some exercise.

Cnossen says the race "really buried me." It took him four days to recover. Of course, during that time, he also won silver and bronze medals (in the sitting middle-distance biathlon and sitting cross-country sprint, respectively).

He was inspired, in part, by the guy who finished that 15-km race ahead of him. Ukraine's Maksym Yarovyi does not even have the use of his core; Cnossen says, "He is skiing up hills with literally just his arms."

When the race ended, Yarovyi was hunched over, gasping for breath for many minutes. Cnossen was in awe: "He completely deserves that gold medal."

Cnossen of all people would know.