One More Wave

How injured Navy SEAL Dan Cnossen reconnected to the ocean.

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One night in September 2009, Lieutenant Commander Dan Cnossen was leading Navy SEAL Team 1 on a mission in southern Afghanistan. In the darkness, Cnossen stepped on an improvised explosive device, triggering a devastating bomb blast. Eight days later, he woke up from a coma at a naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, with a shattered pelvis, broken hands, and both legs amputated above the knee.

“After the injury, I didn’t know what my life would look like,” Cnossen remembers. “Would I be bound to a wheelchair? Would I be able to walk again?”

Following more than 40 painful surgeries to reconstruct his body and fight infections, Cnossen began the long road of physical therapy. “I reverted back to what I learned in the military,” he says. “When things get really hard, you have to focus on the immediate task, the thing you need to do right at that moment. My goals in the beginning weren’t grandiose. Getting out of the hospital. Walking. And eventually, running.”

For the next two years, Cnossen put everything into his physical therapy program. His progress caught the eye of a Paralympics liaison. Cnossen was invited to train as a cross-country skier in Colorado, qualifying for the US Paralympic Nordic Ski Team and representing the United States at the 2014 games in Sochi.

The following year, Cnossen visited San Diego for medical checkups related to his retirement from the Navy. While in California, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient heard about One More Wave, a nonprofit launched by his SEAL buddy Alex West dedicated to shaping custom surfboards for injured veterans.

“When I was going through those years of physical therapy,” says Cnossen, “I missed that connection with the ocean. As a SEAL, I grew to love the ocean—I realized surfing could be how I get that back.”

Cnossen didn’t know if surfing would be possible, but his experience as a SEAL and as a Paralympic athlete had taught him the art of adaptation. Surfing turned out to be the perfect off-season complement to his training regimen for biathlon, in which he won a gold medal at the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang.

“Surfing,” he says, “is this amazing combination of what you can control—paddling, fitness, positioning, and skill—with uncontrollable elements—swell angle, amplitude, tide, current, and wind—intersecting in time and space, bringing together the human and the natural, right here, right now. When all of this lines up, you feel the perfection of the moment.”

He’s recently been working with the team at One More Wave to refine his quiver. “My first board was in the 8-foot range,” he says, “and now I’ve worked my way down to boards 5’10” and below.”

Since learning to surf, Cnossen has begun traveling to test his wave skills around the world. He was recently in Bali, surfing overhead Uluwatu and the infamous Megatron slab south of Bingin. 

“My long-term goal,” says Cnossen, “is to live a life that is present, fully in tune with the here and now. To not ever take the future for granted, and to realize that today is the only day that exists now. Quite often the intensity and concentration of surfing teaches us how to be fully in the present moment, and for this reason I see it as a big part of my life in the years to come.