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The Paralympic Games begin Friday in Beijing


The Paralympics begin in Beijing tomorrow. Among the American athletes competing this year is a former Navy SEAL who lost his legs in Afghanistan because of a roadside bomb explosion. Greg Echlin with member station KCUR in Kansas City share the story.

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: Dan Cnossen is a solidly built 41-year-old who's prepared to compete in the Paralympics for the third time. Four years ago, he won six medals, including a gold. Before leaving for China for this year's games, he trained alone in West Yellowstone, Mont.


ECHLIN: Cnossen's specialty is the sitting biathlon, which combines shooting with cross-country skiing. He'll also race cross-country skiing a stretch of 18 kilometers - or, roughly, 11 miles.

DAN CNOSSEN: I have to learn how to push myself, to dig into my own inner reaches and try to put forth every ounce of energy that I have. And it's painful sometimes, and some days it's there, and some days it's not.

ECHLIN: Cnossen says being a Paralympian has helped him make the transition from military life.

CNOSSEN: Following a training plan is great. Being part of a team is great. Representing the U.S. overseas is great. But ultimately, for me - and this, I admit, is very self-focused, but it's just about being part of the action.

All right, just going to keep staying warm.


ECHLIN: For the biathlon, Cnossen drops from his seated position on skis, then plops the core of his body onto a platform that looks like a large mat. Then he aims his air rifle at a target the size of a blueberry 10 meters away - or about 33 feet.


ECHLIN: Cnossen lost his legs as a Navy SEAL platoon leader in 2009 and knows by the size of the target he's shooting at how much a millimeter to the right or left meant life or death back then. He considers himself lucky to be alive. A Kansas native, Cnossen grew up loving the outdoors. Before he went to the Naval Academy, he was a soccer and track athlete in high school.

CNOSSEN: One of the things after my injury that was important for me was doing something new so that I didn't have a barometer of my past former self to compare.

ECHLIN: There's a group called Move United that eases former military personnel into adaptive sports. Retired executive director Kirk Bauer says dealing with mental barriers is the first step. Bauer knows, since he lost a leg in Vietnam as the result of a grenade explosion. After coming home, he took up downhill skiing.

KIRK BAUER: You're talking about the potential obstacles we see in people's heads. It's 80% mental and 20% physical. But you have to do the physical.

ECHLIN: And Cnossen did. Beyond sports, he earned master's degrees from Harvard in public administration and theological studies. He's built an impressive resume but with uncertainty ahead.

CNOSSEN: Yes, yes. I am wondering what my life is going to be like when I'm not on the Paralympic team.

ECHLIN: Cnossen has dabbled in public speaking and might pursue more. His friend Adam LaReau, also a former Navy SEAL, owns a company that conducts seminars for first responders.

ADAM LAREAU: When he gets in front of them and talks about goal-setting, mental performance, resilience, bouncing back from challenges and focus and attention control, Dan is disciplined and dedicated.

ECHLIN: The lesson that Cnossen has learned over the last 13 years is one he'd like to share.

LAREAU: Difficult situations happen to everybody. That's just a part of life. One of my messages is that you often can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.

ECHLIN: For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIANTS' NEST'S "CLOUDS AND RAINBOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ever since he set foot on the baseball diamond at Fernwood Park on Chicago's South Side, Greg Echlin began a love affair with the world of sports. After graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he worked as a TV sports anchor and a radio sportscaster in Salina, Kansas. He moved to Kansas City in 1984 and has been there since covering sports. Through the years, he has covered multiple Super Bowls, Final Fours and Major League Baseball's World Series and All-Star games.