Boston Marathon

Dan Cnossen's journey


On days when it may seem grim, there is the quiet example of U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen to give us all hope. Cnossen is a leading contender to make the U.S. Paralympic team at next February's Sochi 2014 Games in Nordic skiing. He has a real shot to win a medal in both cross-country skiing and in biathlon, the skiing-and-shooting sport.

It's not just that, though.

Dan Cnossen, a Navy SEAL, lost both legs just above the knees in an explosion in Afghanistan in September, 2009.

It's how he has come back, how he can walk and run, and ski, and how it's all a new normal.

This is the way it's going to be now for those wounded in the Boston Marathon bombings last month.

Dan Cnossen's tale can show the way.

"We are a high-performance sports organization, and that means we work day in and day out with a pretty remarkable group of people," Max Cobb, the president and chief executive of USA Biathlon, said.

"And then there are times when for a moment you reflect on an athlete like Dan Cnossen, and on his progress, on his story, on his phenomenal tenacity. It's emotional. Dan makes you proud to be an American, proud to be on his team."

Cnossen says about the suggestion that he might be an example, "It's pretty humbling," adding, "I hope it can help."

Dan was born and raised in Kansas, on the outskirts of Topeka. He and his sister, Leslie, are the fifth generation in his family to grow up there, on a family farm.

He went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The academy has a triathlon team that competes at the Olympic distance; he was on that team. Meanwhile, twice while in college, he ran the Boston Marathon. His best time, in 2000 -- 3:05.57.

After the academy, he made it into the SEALs. There can be no doubting his work ethic and mental toughness.

The explosion in Afghanistan took place on Sept. 8, 2009. Cnossen stepped on an IED, an improvised explosive device. He was unconscious for eight days.

When he woke up, in intensive care in Maryland, it was not much of a shock to realize what had happened. "I just kind of knew," he says now.

Dan's first year home is chronicled on a website that features a beautifully written collection of posts, many from his sister, Leslie. This one is from the first post, not even three weeks after the blast, from his mother, Alice:

"The medics who saved his life, the surgeons in Bagram and Landstuhl who stabilized him for transport to National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, the excellent medical teams who have cared for him daily since his arrival here -- all have converged to bring him to his destiny today: to embark upon many new adventures and turn over a new leaf in his life: healing, recovery, rehabilitation, reconnection with family and fellow wounded warriors, perhaps serving as an inspiration to many as he starts this long, arduous journey toward renewed health and joyful living."

The goal, Dan said, was not just walking. It was running. That was what he had done on the afternoon before the bomb blast that night in Afghanistan. That was what he had done on the beach in San Diego, training for and with the SEALs. Or on the many trails wherever he was. "I was," he said, "always a runner."

On Sept. 8, 2010, exactly a year to the day later, Cnossen ran four laps around a track in Rockville, Md. "It was," he said, "a struggle," adding, "I wanted to quit after two. But I got four in."

Part of the struggle had to do with the technology he was using. He switched prosthetic devices and learned how to run with a straight-leg style, with his hips out wide. That made him more stable, meaning he could run not just on a track but venture out into, as he calls it, "the real world," onto pavement.

The switch also made him a lot faster.

He has, he said, run five kilometers, or 3.1 miles, in 17:50.

"Now I'm at the point I can do 5:10, 5:15 [per mile] if I'm going hard," he said.

He also has gotten back to the marathon. At the 2011 New York Marathon, he hand-cycled the first 16 miles. Then he ran the final 10-plus. His finish time: 2:38.

At the 2011 Warrior Games, Cnossen won three gold swim medals and a bronze in the 800 in track and field.

The 2013 edition of the Warrior Games wrapped up Thursday in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Cnossen was not there; he is in Bend, Ore., at a ski camp.

The beauty of biathlon is that it involves, as Cnossen phrased it, "moving and shooting." That's the same principle that drives infantry and special operations.

"As a sport," he said, "I thought this might be a way to represent something a little bigger. The community I come from, and thanks to the complete support of my chain of command, I have been able to remain on active duty. And I have come to love it."

On skis, "I can cover 30 to 40 kilometers through trails in the woods, and it's hard to do that in any other way. For me, I had really liked trail running before my injury. I am a good runner but I need pavement. Cross-country skiing gives me the ability to do that, the ability to get out into the woods."

The challenge in biathlon for Cnossen -- who this past winter won a silver medal at an IPC World Cup biathlon event in Wisconsin and finished sixth at the long-course cross-country skiing championships in Sweden -- is both the shooting and the skiing.

Of course he learned to shoot in the military. But that's different than acquiring the pacing it takes to shoot after racing hard.

Then there's the skiing itself. And, as Cnossen notes, he has only been skiing for just a little bit over two years.

That's why he's in the Oregon mountains in May.

"In the scheme of things," he said, "I can become good enough at shooting to win. It becomes hard to develop strength and stamina to ski fast."

Of course, a 2014 Sochi medal is the goal. But so many things have to come together, cautioned James Upham, the U.S. biathlon team's Paralympic coach.

"It's about setting that goal that's a little beyond your reach and going for it and following the plan," Upham said, adding a moment later for emphasis that while winning would be fantastic it simply can not be -- in this arena -- the measure of all things.

"When you hear whatever national anthem it is that's playing, can you say, 'I had my best day? My best year?' Can you say you are satisfied in that deeply spiritual way you can be as an athlete?' "

If you had to bet on anyone to develop strength and stamina to ski fast, wouldn't you like Dan Cnossen's odds?

This next passage is also from the family website; it's included in the final post, written a year after the blast in Afghanistan. Dan's sister, Leslie, wrote:

"Dan has no solid plans for the future quite yet – he is just going one day at a time – but I know that wherever he ends up taking himself and the rest of his life will make these triumphs of the past year seem like just a small fraction of what he’s capable of."


Boston Marathon bombings: 'For what? For what?'

The particular cruelty of the attack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon is not just that bombs killed and injured real people with real lives and real families who loved them. Who love them still. That is only the starting place.

The pictures from the scene, the descriptions of witnesses -- runners nearing the finish line, the roar of the two explosions, runners suddenly legless, the street awash in blood and gore -- are so horrifying in their brutality that they must shock any and all of us who adhere to the markers of a civil, decent world.

This picture from the Twitter feed of PR professional Bruce Mendelsohn shows some of the finish-line carnage

It is said that sport can show the path to a better world. It offers windows to a world in which we can talk to each other in ways we might not otherwise find. Through the tests of body, mind and soul, sport can illuminate such things as friendship, excellence and respect -- the so-called Olympic values.

There is in all of sport perhaps no greater individual test than the marathon. It's just you and yourself out there. No matter how many thousands of people are in the race with you, it's really just you and however much will you can summon to keep going.

This would seem what the blasts were really aimed at Monday.

They were timed to do maximum damage not just in the real world we live in.

They were aimed at an idea -- more, at an ideal.

The blasts were of course a statement. Why else did they go off near the finish line of the marathon that is, of all the road races in the world, the most venerated?

Three people were killed and more than 100 injured in the two blasts, authorities were reporting late Monday evening. The explosions went off, seconds apart, about four hours after the start of the men's race.

Roupen Bastajian, a state trooper from Rhode Island, was receiving his finisher's medal after completing the race in 4 hours, 2.42 seconds. He crossed at 2:43 p.m., about seven minutes before the first explosion, as he told the New York Times. He thought at first it might be a symbolic cannon. Then he heard the second blast and started running toward the white smoke. He saw at least 40 people on the ground:

“These runners just finished and they don’t have legs now. So many of them. There are so many people without legs. It’s all blood. There’s blood everywhere. You got bones, fragments. It’s disgusting. It’s like a war zone.”

President Obama, in a statement from the White House, said, "We will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this, and we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice."

The president did not refer to the attacks as an act of terrorism. He cautioned everyone from "jumping to conclusions."

You can be sure, however, that federal, state and law enforcement authorities are going to treat this as terrorism. You've got multiple explosive devices. On a stage designed to attract national and international attention. That equals an act of terror.

The pressing question, of course, is -- what is the motive behind Monday's attack?

Monday was tax day in the United States. Is that it?


It was the Patriots' Day holiday Monday in Massachusetts, which commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War, the battles of Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775. Massachusetts switched its observation of the day itself to the third Monday in April in 1969, and Patriots' Day there in recent years is as much known for the marathon as for the holiday.

The holiday, however, carries significance for anti-government activists and this third week in April carries a number of anniversaries with potential significance: the assault in Waco, Texas, that ended a 51-day standoff and left 80 members of a religious group called the Branch Davidians dead (April 19, 1993); the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which officials have said was carried out in part as a response to the Waco event (April 19, 1995); and, as well, school shootings in Columbine, Colo. (April 20, 1999) and at Virginia Tech (April 16, 2007).

The shootings at Virginia Tech and the Waco assault took place on a Monday -- Patriots' Day itself those particular years.

Is there a connection to any or all of those events?

As everyone knows, security at all sports events has ramped up considerably since the Munich 1972 Games and again since 9/11.

International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams, quoted by Associated Press, said "first thoughts" were with the victims of Monday's attack and their families. Rio 2016 organizers expressed their "deep thoughts and condolences" and Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, condemned what she called an "insane act of violence."

Brazil, host to not just the 2016 Summer Games but the 2014 World Cup, has never confronted a significant threat of terror attacks.

The inescapable truth is that a marathon is 100 percent impossible to make safe. The corollary: that makes a marathon, especially one of the majors, a hugely attractive target.

The 2004 Athens Games marathon was disrupted when Neil Horan, a defrocked Irish priest who that day was wearing a red kilt, knocked race leader Vanderlei de Lima off course with just five kilometers to go. Stunned, de Lima picked himself up and continued to race, eventually finishing third. Horan, who had a history of mental illness, was given a 12-month suspended jail term, a 3,000-euro fine and banned from all future sports events.

What happened Monday in Boston is, needless to say, several orders of magnitude beyond that.

At the same time, it reinforces the point -- a marathon can not be made "safe."

The London Marathon is due to take place Sunday. Officials there, according to a statement released by the London Marathon Twitter account, are already reviewing security arrangements.

Whoever set off those bombs Monday in Boston sought to effect maximum damage. Literally, figuratively and -- perhaps most important -- to our collective imagination.

Lauren Fleshman, one of America's top female runners, was in Boston, cheering on friends. She  wrote on her blog that the "area by the finish was so packed that you couldn't even move."

She also wrote, "The Boston Marathon has so many stories from thousands of people that won't be told, because a few people are cruel and crazy and impossible to understand, and that makes me even sadder than I already am."

Paul Thompson, a 29-time finisher of the race, a sports cardiologist who has made a career out of studying the health implications of running the Boston Marathon, talked with the Wall Street Journal as he was driving away from the bloody scene near the finish line. He was crying.

"For what? For what?" he said. "These people are totally innocent. They're not engaged in combat."