Caring for those in Need

Setting Goals and Overcoming Obstacles – Dan Cnossen: A True Hero

Dan Cnossen is a U.S. Navy SEAL Lt. Commander, 7-Time Paralympic Medalist, 3-Time Paralympian, 2022 Paralympic Gold Medalist, Best Male Athlete of the 2018 Paralympic Games, Master of Theological Studies 2018, Harvard University, Master in Public Administration 2016, Harvard University. He spoke with me recently about his inspirational journey.

BY Faye Simon | July 2023 | Category: Adaptive Sports and Recreation

Setting Goals and Overcoming Obstacles – Dan Cnossen: A True Hero

Faye: Dan, Thank you for your service! I very much appreciate you agreeing to share your story and time.
Dan: Thank you. As you know, I live with a disability. I looked into EP Magazine and I’m happy to support it.
FS: Why don’t you give us a summary from the beginning, and I will ask questions.
DC: I grew up in Kansas in a nice family setting, on a fifth-generation farm from the 1870s. It’s been in my family ever since. As a kid, I was into sports, reading and being outside on the farm. I was drawn to reading about military, combat and war. It intrigued me, not to glorify war, but the human element. In my freshman year of high school, I wanted to go to the Naval Academy. I don’t know why, but I wanted to. So, I explored options. At the Naval Academy, you can be a Marine, go on a ship or be a submariner, whereas at the other service academies, West Point and Air Force Academy, it seemed more concentrated. West Point, you go in the army. All of the things you do in the army, you can pretty much do in the Marines or at the Naval Academy. At the Naval Academy, you have ships, can fly, and have other options. I really wanted to go to the Naval Academy and had that goal. I think the theme to my story is setting goals. Sometimes these goals are long-range, many years into the future, and they’re not going to be easy to achieve. But you can start to come up with a process. For me, it was clear that I needed to have good grades, demonstrate some athleticism and leadership. That’s what they were looking for at the service academies. In my junior year, I started applying. You also have to apply to your representative and one or both senators in your state. I did that, and got into the Naval Academy in my senior year. I was really proud and excited to be accepted. I went to the Naval Academy in 1998, after graduating high school.
By the end of the first year of Naval Academy, I had a new goal of being selected for the SEAL program. My Naval Academy class started with around 1200, but some quit and some got booted out for not having good grades or having bad conduct. About 900 were going to graduate, and 16 were going to (BUD/S) basic underwater demolition/ SEAL training. I was hoping to be one of the 16. But I didn’t really know how to swim. So, I had to orient myself in those four years towards getting in the swimming pool more often and getting more comfortable in the water. Just being selected at the Naval Academy had no bearing on my ability to get through that training. It’s very difficult. I was given a ticket to the door, but I had to get through it. It was very difficult for me, but I learned a lot: about myself, how to be a good teammate, and I grew in character. When you’re challenged like that, you recover and you’re stronger. I set that goal, worked hard, and I was one of 16 in my class who got to go to BUD/S. I attended USNA for four years and was selected to attend SEAL training (BUD/S) in the beginning of the final semester there.
I can’t talk about the Naval Academy experience without mentioning, that during senior year, before being selected for BUD/S, 911 happened. It was clear to me, that if I was selected for SEAL training and got through it, I’d be involved in special operations that would be directly as a result of those attacks. That was a big moment. I’ll never forget that day at the Naval Academy. The environment there changed. Although, I had entered during peacetime, I was thinking that combat and war were probably going to be in my future. I went to SEAL training in 2002, graduated in 2003. I started deploying as a SEAL officer in 2004. I did three deployments before I was a platoon commander in charge of a SEAL platoon. Early during that deployment, when the entirety of my platoon wasn’t yet on the ground, I stepped on a buried improvised explosive device (IED) on a remote hilltop, during a night mission. The teammates around me, none of whom were seriously injured, were able to save my life and get me out of there. It was precarious. To get me off that hilltop at night, they had to get a helicopter back. The timing was down to the minute. Everything had to line up to get me onto a helicopter where there was a flight surgeon, and for that helicopter to get back to a field hospital, where I would be going through surgery. I’m told I was in a medically induced coma, and it was 50-50 whether I was going to pull through. But I did. I got better.
I eventually ended up in Washington DC, waking up in a room with my mother there. That was disorienting, because my last waking memories were being dragged onto a helicopter.
FS: When you woke up did you know about your legs?
DC: Not really, maybe subconsciously I did. When you’re in a medically induced coma, people are talking in the room, and I think things are getting processed. When I woke up, I was disoriented, on a lot of painkillers and not thinking clearly. My lower body was covered with blankets. I think I kind of knew, but no one was telling me anything specific. I remember asking someone whether my legs were gone. They said yes, and I came to find they had amputated above the knees. That’s even harder. I never really thought about that, whether you have knees or not. I thought about missing a leg, and that it’s different if you’re missing one leg above the knee, below the knee, or through the hip (which is the worst). But I’m missing both legs and both knees. That’s another level of complexity entirely.
This was kind of a ground zero moment for me. I was 29 years old. I just had been a platoon commander, feeling not invincible, but very confident. We trained to go to war and then this happened. I thought the worst thing that could happen to me as a platoon commander would be that one of my guys dies in combat, and I would never get over that. I would second guess all the decisions I had made that led up to that, for the rest of my life. If something happened to me, I figured it would be death, right? But, to survive and be maimed for the rest of my life and disabled, eligible for a handicap placard, those details never occurred to me.
That’s the situation I faced in Fall 2009 and into 2010, as I started to go through surgeries.
FS: When the reality hit that you had lost your legs, what helped you get through it and keep going?
DC: It’s a combination of things. I tend to be future-oriented. I tend to set goals, although those goals sometimes need to be adjusted. My initial goal was, “I’m going to get prosthetic legs and be an operational SEAL again”. That goal lifted me up, gave me some positivity, and that helped. A couple of months later, I got fitted for the prosthetic legs. The prosthetic knees are heavy and cumbersome. You can’t feel the ground, they bend underneath you. I didn’t have a lot of strength because of atrophy. I realized I was exhausted at the end of the day of just two hours of physical therapy. I wondered how I was going to walk on them. It became apparent to me, and seems so obvious now, why would I have a goal of becoming an operational SEAL again? But in the beginning, it lifted me up. Then, I realized this wasn’t a realistic goal. Goals need to be realistic, although they may be hard to achieve and very long-term or far away. Once it was clear to me that it was not going to happen, I set new goals. I wanted to walk without a cane, nor use a wheelchair, unless it was absolutely necessary, and then start to run. Those were my goals that really got me going forward. I had to think about narrowing the focus. I told myself “Look, you’re far away from your goals, but you have to have faith and hope that this can be achieved”. I hoped that everything I was doing then, including my physical therapy, was feeding into walking, which feeds into running. I took it day by day. I fell into a routine and habit that created some momentum. It’s not as much of a struggle if you have the habit of going to physical therapy and putting in the work. And I had my network of family and friends. That’s an external factor that’s really important. It was a combination of internal and external sources of motivation.
FS: How did you get through the difficult PT?
DC: I think the reason I got through the training was because I can process this. I think this kind of mental strength comes through conditioning. I certainly did not have a lot of mental fortitude as a kid in terms of playing sports, that I can recall. I tried combative type sports and I would quit. I tried a mini-SEAL camp as a sea cadet, I succumbed. There were some moments in my history, where I felt like I was naturally a resilient person. But at this point, although I had been through a lot, I wanted to represent the community well. I tried to think that this is just physical. Losing my legs is much easier than losing someone you love. Walking is a new sport and I’m going to tackle it. It’s not to say there weren’t tough days. There were tough days. There were days that were frustrating. Before I learned what the prosthetic knees are actually like, people would say things to lift me up: “People who are missing legs are climbing Mount Everest, they’re doing mountaineering, they’re doing all kinds of things. You can do whatever you want, there’s no limit.” That’s just not grounded in reality. People missing a part of one leg may be climbing Mount Everest, but I don’t think they’re doing it on knee prosthetics if they’re missing both legs above the knees. I didn’t know the reality of the situation, that they are so cumbersome. When I got them, I had this unrealistic notion of what the prosthetic knees would be like. When I got on them, I thought “oh my goodness, they’re heavy, I’m so tired. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to walk without canes or support.” I even wondered what it was going to be like when I’m an older person. I still think about that. I have to be very physically fit to walk on two prosthetic knees, because they are heavy and you have less of a limb structure to move them. Then there’s the question of heat and humidity. All these things can create setbacks and frustration. But, if you focus on the past and live in the pity of what you used to be able to do, that’s not constructive. Looking into the future, setting goals, can really be great. But you don’t want the present to pass you by either. There’s a challenge being future-oriented, but also realizing that anything that you can do now to improve the situation is important. You can’t act in the future; you can only act right now. So, now’s the time to start working.
FS: That’s great advice. Are there lots of different kinds of prosthetics to go through to find what would work for you?
DC: Yes. This is one of the reasons, I feel very fortunate to be in the military, needing prosthetics. One might say being in the military is why this happened. I was very proud to be part of the SEAL team. I knew there were risks, one of which is stepping on an IED. I’m glad it happened to me, as opposed to someone else on the hilltop, because I’m wired to handle it. I didn’t have kids, I wasn’t married. So, I felt of anybody up there, maybe this was supposed to happen to me, for whatever reason, not apparent to me. With that said, Walter Reed Army Medical Center is the place to learn how to walk if you’re an amputee. The surgical team, the wound care team, the prosthetic team, etc. were well integrated, like a well-oiled machine. You could try any prosthetic knee you wanted. That was really important. There are different sockets that the limb fits into and many different socket designs. The liner goes around your own limb to protect it and create the barrier. Sometimes, you don’t need a liner with a certain kind of socket. There are different liner choices or the choice of not using a liner. There are different socket, knee and feet choices. It’s overwhelming in the beginning. I was thinking if this had happened from a car accident when I was a civilian, and insurance said, “You get one shot,” how do you know what you want when you haven’t tried them? That’s why for many reasons, being at Walter Reed was so important for me. I’m not from Washington, DC. and I didn’t have roots there. My sister quit her job in New York City to live with me, as a caretaker. It took two years out of our lives. This was the kind of investment I felt I needed to make. Being in this incredible environment allowed me to leave knowing that I had the equipment dialed in, how to walk and run, and live an independent life.
FS: Are you set or do you have to get new equipment every so often?
DC: It’s very expensive. The single knee that I use, the market price is over $100,000. Every year they need to be maintained. I send them back for servicing, and they come back cleaned and freshened up. When my prosthetic knees are sent in for maintenance, the prosthetic company provides “loaner” replacement knees, so that I am still able to walk and function as normal. 
FS: You learned to walk; you realized certain goals. How and when did you decide to learn to ski and go to the Paralympics?
DC: I had a wonderful physical therapist at Walter Reed and had been learning how to walk for about a year and a half. They had a lot of opportunities: Wounded Warrior golfing, Wounded Warrior hunting, soldier ride down in Florida, lots of different opportunities. When I felt like I could travel, I started going to some of the camps and realized that adaptive sports are quite impressive. There are all kinds of opportunities, so I’m not actually limited. Well, I’m limited in some ways, but I’m not necessarily limited in the kinds of activities. I’ve got to do it a different way now. Some things are going to be different, or going to be much harder, or in some cases, it’s just not realistic to do anymore.
I was exposed to the Paralympic program through a recruiter, a liaison actually, of the now US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, stationed at Walter Reed. I went out to a sports camp, introductory in nature. As luck would have it, the coaches of cross country and biathlon were both there. They asked me if I’d be interested in doing biathlon. I really was intrigued by cross-country skiing, as well as, biathlon, because biathlon is cross-country skiing with marksmanship.
FS: Did you ski before you got into the biathlons?
DC: No. That comes into play later, but I do think that growing up on the farm accustomed me to being outside. Loving to be outside, loving nature and being outdoors in the woods is probably why I got into cross-country skiing. It felt like this would be an interesting sport. I decided to go to the camp that they invited me to in Montana. I love being in the woods. I love hiking, mountaineering, and climbing mountains. Trail running was a favorite thing. So cross-country skiing quickly became this new way of hiking. I knew now, I would have to do it from a seated position with only my upper body and two poles. That’s tough, but you can train. I saw future teammates who were so fast and saw that it was possible. Cross-country skiing; being in the woods, gliding on snow, covering ground under my own energy and power was really exciting. I started to see direction in my life. This is in late 2010 into 2011. I felt like this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t have any goals around anything else. I thought “skiing is going to be really good for me”.
FS: And you excelled.
DC: I love it and I think the performance comes later. But, at a fundamental level, I just like doing it.
FS: In addition to your story, would you share some of what you speak about that seems to really help people? Could you summarize a little for our audience about overcoming obstacles, tips for facing adversity or an unexpected sudden change in their life?
DC: I think first it’s acknowledging that these things happen. I remember in the hospital people telling me, “Recovery goes three steps forward, two steps back.” In moments of frustration, I was thinking, “Even if I’m taking three steps forward, it feels like 30 steps back.” But, regardless of where you are, what your experience is, what your past has been like, when you look forward, there are going to be additional challenges and obstacles that are going to come your way. I think it’s acknowledging this, and recognizing that a lot of times these setbacks are outside of your control. Maybe you can influence a couple things here and there, but a lot of times you can’t control anything. You can’t control the timing, duration, or the magnitude of the challenge or setback. How you are going to respond becomes something that you can control. Maybe not right away or how you first look at it, because we often have an instinctive response. I do think in the long run, you can control how you respond to it. I had days where this major setback I had, was really tough, and I was in a low spot. But ultimately, in the long run, I could control this response. Some days, I’m not totally there in my head, but by and large, I can control how I’m going to respond, and end up living the life that I want to live, and get through this.
I think it’s acknowledging that these things happen and then taking some ownership, that you can control: how you respond, your reaction, your attitude, and your mindset. That can be self-empowering and you hold on to that. Set goals beyond the challenge. Set some goals that are well into the challenge and far, and some that are shorter.
The most powerful goals, I have found, are inside you. They are aligned with who you are and you can’t force these things. You can’t think because so-and-so is saying this should be a path that you should take, that you should then go do that. You can, but the persistence, discipline and commitment that are required, may be lacking, if it’s not coming from a true source, like inside of you would be. Goals can be really powerful when they’re inside. When did I want to become a Navy Seal? It was just inside, and it was this very powerful goal. I never would’ve gotten through all of that training if I didn’t have that closely held goal. The goal to run and to be athletic again, that was inside me. Nobody needed to tell me what it should be. I didn’t need to write it down on paper. It just was inside me. Because I held those goals really close, doing the work that was going to be hard, was easy to want to do, if that makes sense. “It’s going to be hard, but I want to go do it.” So, I had the discipline, the commitment, and all that it was going to take. You can’t fake these things. Therefore, I think the strongest goals will just come naturally.
FS: Can you give an example of some of your shorter and longer goals?
DC: In the very beginning, in the hospital, I really wanted to run again. I had no idea if it was going to be possible, but because my limbs were long enough and there is a running prosthetic I had heard of, I thought it was possible. I really wanted to do it, but it was long term, I couldn’t put a timeline on this. The challenge was this major setback, I don’t have legs. The goal was I wanted to run. So, I should learn how to walk first. I needed to get out of the bed, before that. I needed to get in a wheelchair before I walk. It’s segmenting into shorter goals.
FS: When you do your talk about inspiration, overcoming adversity, are there a few key points that you could share?
DC: I talk about sharpening and narrowing your focus when things get difficult, which is what I was alluding to; setting shorter term goals. When things get hard, that’s the time to sharpen and narrow your focus, instead of thinking so long term that it becomes overwhelming and discouraging. The other thing I talk about is perspective. When I went over to Walter Reed, there was a physical transfer but also a transformation in my mind, because I was surrounded by dozens of service members, some of whom were only nineteen and missing, in some cases, three limbs or four limbs. It allowed me to think about what I should be grateful for and focus on what I still had. The fact that I had my arms, that they were in good working order, became really apparent when I was around triple and quadruple amputees. This is the idea of perspective. I think it’s appreciating what you have. I can talk about this, but to really realize that, I think you have to challenge yourself and you have to constantly remind yourself about what you can still do or train to do, and what you still have. The best way to do that is to actually go do things. I had to be thankful for my arms, so I should go swimming with my arms or go cross country skiing with my arms.
FS: That’s great advice. Do you have any additional tips for those facing a mobility issue where either their legs are paralyzed or they lost their legs or for whatever reason they can’t walk like they used to anymore?
DC: Although I became a Paralympic athlete, that doesn’t have to be the model for everybody. I saw service members want to go down the road of politics, go to graduate school, or get a college degree and enter the workforce. All of that is wonderful. You don’t have to do the purely physical activities to show that you overcame a physical setback. Maybe that’s why I was driven, but I’m also very athletically minded. I think what I’m getting at is, I love being an athlete and I always loved it. I think it’s acknowledging who you are in your core, what you loved to do as a kid, what you love to do now, and I think that can guide you in the future. It doesn’t have to be the physical route like I’ve taken. But that was who I was in my core. I think when you align your goals that are going to get you through this challenge, whether you achieve them or not, you’re at least moving forward, and hopefully some small wins can create some momentum psychologically. If you align where you’re trying to go with who you are, I think that can really help you get through it.
FS: For people who are not mentally tough, do you have any suggestions how to get there?
DC: I think we are all tough in our core. It’s maybe that some people erect more barriers than others. If you do what I was saying about aligning what you want to do with who you are, and pursue what you love, and really do it, I think it can really help.
What is the other choice? What is the alternative? Just to feel sorry for yourself? You may be allowed that for a while, but eventually life goes on. In some cases, setbacks happen later in life, but when it’s happening in your twenties or thirties, this will eventually be “normal.” I remember thinking in the beginning that if I lived to old age, most of my life will have been lived without legs. So, I might as well just get used to it now. It’s hard to do that, but it does become “normal.” What is the alternative? For years and years to feel sorry for something just doesn’t seem realistic. So, I need to move forward. We’re tough in our core, resilient in our core. Look at some of the barriers that may be there and overcome some of them, whatever they may be.
FS: You have a very positive attitude. Do you have any idea how you’ve got such a positive attitude and how you can encourage others to have a more positive attitude?
DC: Maybe it’s DNA or my environment or the way I was raised. I’m not sure. If someone is negative, I’m sure a psychologist would have much better advice than I can give on that. I think there’s something to be said for just doing things. Whatever’s going on in our head, if you’re actually doing something constructive, then doing something can transfer into your mind.
FS: Your leisure time, if you call it leisure – your fun time is your sports?
DC: Yeah. I was very goal oriented as a Paralympic athlete. I did win a gold medal. You can’t do better than a gold medal. You can get another one, but I don’t really feel like getting another.
I’ve gone through three Paralympic cycles. I’m entering my fourth. I don’t have any more goals within the sport. I decided to create some new challenges that are outside of the sport, but still within the sport, broadly speaking. That is to do ski marathons, because I want to demonstrate that sit skiers can do ski marathons, and get them on the Paralympic circuit. These are 50-kilometer races. So, that’s where I want to go. I want to do it. This is not super important to me, but I do think it’s showing some motivation, and it’s maybe a goal that’s a year ahead. I did a 54-kilometer ski marathon in Norway in March, and I really think that on the Paralympic circuit we should have these competitions. Not necessarily at the games, because putting a 50-kilometer race in the games would be a little tough to do logistically, but on our World Cup circuit, they could have the ski marathons. I think you just got to go out and do it, and then start a conversation around it. That’s kind of where I’m at right now. I don’t think I have anything else.
There’s kind of this transition from being this full-time 100% athlete, which I was years ago, that I can tell is kind of slipping away a little bit. It’s still very much a part of my life, but I’m not so concerned about next season and what my training is for tomorrow? I’m going to still exercise. I used to take that so seriously. During the process of getting better, I had this fire inside me. Often though, I would think that all my training was not making the world better. Sometimes, I thought that maybe through the example of it, it helped some people. I could be driving and would come down on myself a little hard. But then I would think that I didn’t know where this was coming from, but it was there, and I wanted to train and do all this. Now, I have softened up a little bit from that, to be honest. I still like to race, but it’s not this huge part of who I am. These cycles just happen naturally when you are getting older.
FS: Absolutely. Not to analyze, but maybe some of the ambition could have come from what you went through, and needing to show yourself all you were still able to do. Now, that you see how much you can do, it doesn’t have to be proving anything. Now, you can just really enjoy and have different activities in your life, which is a nice thing.
DC: Yeah. I think so. I think that’s fairly correct, if not totally correct.
FS: Is speaking more like a job, although you’re helping people?
DC: Yes. I’d like to grow as a speaker. My goal would be to reach more audiences and continue with it, as long as I like it. And then, managing it so that I’m not burning out, managing it in terms of engagements and interviews. I think that’s where I’m at.
FS: What would you like the readers to get from this interview?
DC: I hope it’s entertaining. I hope the story is valuable in terms of giving some advice on how to deal with some setbacks. I think it is helpful if you can prepare yourself, just like in the Seal team. We would train for scenarios that were just so complicated, in hopes that when you get overseas on a real mission, it would not be as complicated. Therefore, when the stakes are higher, you can process things a little better. It’s mindset and mental tips for how to approach challenges and setbacks. If you can prepare yourself for the big ones, then the daily annoyances and setbacks aren’t as big of a deal. The concepts of perspective and narrowing the focus when things get really difficult, and trying to get small wins, small goals to go forward to create more psychological momentum, I think can help people. That’s something practical they can take away.
FS: Dan, it has been an honor. Thank you again for your service and your continued inspiration.
DC: Thank you. You’ve had great questions and are a good listener, so I appreciate that. •


Read the article here: Setting Goals and Overcoming Obstacles – Dan Cnossen: A True Hero