Former Navy SEAL Dan Cnossen on Becoming a Gold Medal-Winning Paralympian After IED Explosion

Dan Cnossen has earned seven Paralympic medals after an IED explosion in Afghanistan took his lower legs

Dan Cnossen

Dan Cnossen admittedly doesn't remember much from the day that changed his life.

In 2009, while serving as a Navy Seal platoon commander, Cnossen was in charge of a night mission in Afghanistan. As his platoon's leader, he reached the mountainside location before many in his unit, a standard procedure for someone of his rank.

Cnossen and about 10 members of his team cleared a hilltop before their assault, but in doing so he stepped on a buried improvised explosive device (IED), which blew away most of his lower legs.

He admits his memories of the moment are hard to piece together, "almost like a kaleidoscope" that can "get shaken up and get assembled" in different ways. "I just remember laying there in the dirt wondering if my teammates are okay because I knew I needed them," Cnossen tells PEOPLE.

"They started to treat me and clear a route to get out of there because it was going to be a race against the clock to get the helicopter back," he explains. "A helicopter was coming. They had to drag me down off the mountain, and I was just in an incredible amount of pain. I was awake during this, trying to hang on."

Through sheer determination, Cnossen's platoonmates managed to bring him to the helicopter, which was already running low on fuel.

"It was really, really close," Cnossen, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor for his service, says. "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."

Dan Cnossen
Larry French/Getty

"This is a perspective shift, but it led to a mindset shift, an attitude shift, and me just feeling thankful to be here still," he adds.

In the years that followed, the 41-year-old Kansas native refocused his energy on a new challenge: succeeding as a Paralympic athlete.

During his recovery, Cnossen — who is sponsored by workforce and human resources management company UKG — was introduced to cross-country skiing and biathlon. The adaptive sports gave Cnossen an outlet to channel his natural ambition and hunger for challenge.

"Sport has such an amazing power to help people heal," he explains. "I thought of myself as an athlete, and that meant something to me."

Cnossen has since won seven Paralympic medals (two golds, four silvers, and one bronze), with his most recent being mixed relay gold at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

"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," he says. "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."

Cnossen believes UKG — which was included on People's 2021 Companies that Care list — has played an essential part in his athletic success. Companies that support adaptive sports play a crucial role in "making a more inclusive society," he says.

RELATED VIDEO: How Paralympian Melissa Stockwell Is Fighting Through to Compete After Breaking Back in Accident

Cnossen's message to anyone facing an overwhelming challenge in their lives is to take into account what they can control, no matter how small, and work from there.

"With what happened to me, despite all the training, preparation, and precautions I've taken, sometimes something like this just happens," he says. "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 continues. "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."

UKG made People's annual 100 Companies That Care list in 2021. To nominate a business demonstrating outstanding respect for its employees, community and the environment, visit Great Place to Work.

Related Articles