During a recent interview, Navy SEAL turned seven-time Paralympics medalist Dan Cnossen opened up about his harrowing story and spoke on the “amazing power” of sports. Getting into sports helped Cnossen heal and find a newfound purpose in life after losing most of his lower legs during an assault in Afghanistan.
In 2009, the Navy SEAL platoon commander led a night mission while deployed in Afghanistan. Part of his responsibility as the platoon’s leader was to walk the path first as they headed towards their objective at a mountainside location. Dan Cnossen and around 10 members of his platoon were just about to clear a hilltop before beginning their nighttime assault on their target. The platoon commander’s next steps would change his life forever.
Dan Cnossen and His Fateful Mission in Afghanistan
As Cnossen pressed forward, he stepped on a buried improvised explosive device (IED) that immediately activated. The IED blew up and Cnossen sustained severe injuries, including losing most of his lower legs. While speaking with PEOPLE recently, the 41-year-old admits his memories of the incident are foggy. He wasn’t sure if the other members of his platoon were alright, but knew he needed their help if he was going to survive.
Thankfully, the explosion missed the rest of his team. They quickly began to clear a route for a helicopter rescue as Cnossen held on for dear life. After dragging him down the mountain, his platoonmates got him to the chopper that was already low on fuel just in time. Most people would look at the incident and consider themselves unlucky. But Cnossen somehow found the positive side of the life-threatening situation that would earn him a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor for his service.
“It was really, really close,” Cnossen explained to PEOPLE. “And due to these circumstances, I’ve gone in my mind from thinking it was unlucky to step where I did, to thinking I’m actually really lucky that all of this lined up. That my teammates were able to get me out of there and get me loaded on the helicopter.”
“This is a perspective shift,” he added. “But it led to a mindset shift, an attitude shift, and me just feeling thankful to be here still.”
The Navy SEAL Shifts His Focus To a New Challenge
Previous to the incident, Dan Cnossen knew Afghanistan is where he wanted to be stationed. When speaking to NBC during the Paralympics, he said his military service wasn’t a choice, “it was my calling.” He and his fellow Navy SEALs had the mindset of wanting “to go where the combat is.” As focused as Cnossen was during his time in service, the Kansas native applied that same determination to a new challenge when back in the States as he recovered.
While rehabbing his injuries, he was introduced to cross-country skiing and biathlon. The adaptive sports would replace his ambitions in the military as he attempted to find success as a Paralympic athlete.
“Sport has such an amazing power to help people heal,” Dan Cnossen shared in his PEOPLE interview. “I thought of myself as an athlete, and that meant something to me.”
To say Cnossen’s determination has paid off would be an understatement. The Navy SEAL has gone on to compete in multiple Paralympics events. That includes the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing where he competed in the mixed relay and won gold. He earned seven medals in total in all competitions – two golds, four silvers, and one bronze.
“For me, having had some individual success in the past, I can honestly say that being part of a team like that, the relay team was a very special thing,” Cnossen said. “When you’re part of a team you know that other people are relying upon you, you’re relying on them, and it just lifts the performance. I’ll never forget that.”
Paralympics Gold Medalist Shares a Message of Hope
Dan Cnossen is an inspiration for numerous reasons dating back to his service with the Navy SEALs. These days, as a Paralympics champion, he continues to inspire others who face what may seem like insurmountable challenges. While speaking with the outlet, Cnossen encouraged others to focus on what they can control and take it from there.
“With what happened to me, despite all the training, preparation, and precautions I’ve taken, sometimes something like this just happens,” Cnossen said. “It may not be a literal bomb going off. But situations that can push you to your limit do come around in life.”
“What helped me was focusing on small things that I knew I could do that would advance me forward, and focusing on that,” Cnossen continued. “Take time to evaluate what is within your control or influence and then separate those situations from those entirely out of your control. Accept what is out of your control, focus on what you can control, and take it one day at a time.”