Kendall Gretsch talks Paralympic success as two-sport athlete, journey to adaptive sports

Kendall Gretsch of Team United States competes in the Women's Individual Sitting Biathlon during day seven of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics.
Kendall Gretsch of Team United States competes in the Women's Individual Sitting Biathlon during day seven of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics.

PARK CITY, Utah — For Kendall Gretsch, winning six gold medals at the recent World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Östersund, Sweden, was terrific, but for the 30-year-old Illinois native, the wins come with an asterisk.

“It’s a little bit tough for me because it’s just kind of a weird year,” said Gretsch ahead of this season’s final FIS Para Nordic World Cup, set for March 1-8 at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah. “Worlds was just a little bit different this year, because obviously Russia and Belarus were not competing. And then [U.S. teammate] Oksana [Masters] is injured this year. I feel like everyone made a really big deal about worlds this year, but for me, I just went there and did what I expected.

“I feel like it’s getting portrayed as like, ‘That was the most successful [worlds] that you’ve ever had,’ and I just feel differently about that. Not that I didn’t earn it, but it wasn’t [the hardest] challenge.”

That humble but honest assessment is an insight into the mindset of the fiercely competitive Gretsch, who was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine and is usually apparent at birth. Gretsch walks with crutches and competes with the help of more complex adaptive equipment, such as a sit-ski for Nordic and biathlon events and a racing wheelchair and handcycle for paratriathlon.

That’s right, Gretsch is a multisport athlete competing for Team USA in both summer and winter sports. Her spina bifida has only served to expand the competitive possibilities for Gretsch, a six-time Paralympic medalist with four gold medals in three different events across both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. Her first two golds came in 2018 in Pyeongchang (sprint biathlon sitting, 12K cross-country sitting), followed by paratriathlon gold in Tokyo in 2021, and gold in the middle-distance biathlon in Beijing in 2022. She also won silver in the individual biathlon and bronze in the sprint biathlon in Beijing.

Gretsch, who currently lives at the U.S. Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Spring, Colo., is using her platform to pay it forward. This past fall, she and her family partnered with the Illinois Spina Bifida Association to create the Kendall Gretsch Fund for Adaptive Athletes, which helps Illinois individuals and families living with spina bifida pay sports-related registration, equipment and travel expenses.

Ahead of her six races at Soldier Hollow, which hosted the Nordic competitions at 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Games, On Her Turf sat down with Gretsch to talk more about her journey to adaptive sports, her future goals and how she hopes her story might shift people’s perspective on Paralympic athletes.

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Tell us a little about your family and growing up in Downers Grove, Illinois. What was that like?

Kendall Gretsch: I have two older sisters and a big extended family, and I would say most of [childhood] I think was pretty shaped by what my older sisters did and just following in their footsteps. Both of my older sisters played the clarinet, so I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna play the clarinet.” We all played softball growing up – that was a really big thing in my town. I guess I should preface that with saying when I was a kid, I had a lot more function, so it was a lot easier for me to kind of like fit into mainstream sports. I could play softball. I could play basketball. I had braces, but that was it. Right before high school, I had a surgery, and then after that, that’s when I started using crutches.

I think I was really lucky as a kid growing up where I grew up my whole life with a disability, but I could be very integrated in a way where I didn’t feel like I was excluded. And so played sports – just like my sisters did. That was that was a big part of my childhood.

OHT: What did you know about your condition growing up? You mentioned a surgery before high school. Did the surgery accomplish what it was supposed to or what was the expectation?

Gretsch: Around middle school, I started developing scoliosis and just had some weaker leg function. [I had gone] through a growth spurt, which can cause scar tissue to start forming around your spinal cord. As a result, it can impact the nerves in your spinal cord, because you have all this scar tissue. Someone described to me like a [finger trap toy] with your spinal cord. … The surgery was to clean all that scar tissue out and then prevent further progression. I haven’t had any sort of declines since then, but the initial surgery was pretty extensive. I came out of that surgery and never fully regained everything.

OHT: What was that like for a young teenager?

Gretsch: It sounds like it could be really transformative, and I guess it was — it completely changed how I live my life — but it didn’t seem transformative in a traumatic way. After the surgery, I really leaned in heavy to physical therapy, and that was something where you just didn’t know how much [function]you were going to get back. … At a certain point, it was like, “Okay, I’m just going to be using crutches and that’s okay.”

OHT: After high school, you head to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where you choose the incredibly difficult major of biomedical engineering. And during your sophomore year, you discover adaptive sports – namely swimming. How did that come about?

Gretsch: At that point, I really didn’t know about the Paralympics. I didn’t know the full extent of what “adaptive sports” meant. …To be honest, I just didn’t think I qualified because I wasn’t a wheelchair user, I wasn’t an amputee. I had all my limbs. So I just didn’t think I qualified for this, which is ridiculous to think about now. But I just didn’t know, right? And the information seemed really hard to figure out at that point.

But I came across an article about someone at St. Louis University who was on the school swim team. He had cerebral palsy, and he was training for London (2012 Paralympics), which was coming up that summer. When I saw that, I was like, “Oh, okay — he looks like me, and he’s doing it competitively.” So that’s when I thought, I should really try to get back into swimming and see if I can do something competitively. So when I got back to school, I [connected with] the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, and they had one swim practice left for their season, so I went to that swim practice. And afterwards, they had track practice, and they invited me to come to that. …

At the time, the person who was running all these programs had just started Dare2tri (a non-profit specializing in adaptive sports). She told me all about it and … that day completely changed my life. She just signed me up for everything. She signed me up for a camp, she signed me up for a race, and as soon as I started doing that, I fell in love.

OHT: So along with studying what’s probably the hardest major, you now add what’s arguably the hardest sport. What does that say about you?

Gretsch: I think it’s funny, because I do like the challenge of it. I also kind of joke sometimes that I’m like not quite good enough at one thing but I can just be decent at a lot of different things and put it together into something. And that’s kind of what biomedical engineering is. That’s what people joke: You’re just not quite good enough to do one. I think it just like it was fun — and it was a challenge. That’s what drew me to it.

OHT: You became very proficient at triathlon very quickly. By 2014, you earn Female Paratriathlon Athlete of the Year honors, and you get an ESPY nomination in 2015. Then you find out your paratriathlon classification is not going to be in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. How did that lead to adding winter para sports to your already jam-packed schedule?

Gretsch: After college, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for a job. And someone at the adaptive sports organization in St. Louis said there’s this adaptive skiing program in Madison that I should check out.

And at the same time, the director for the para Nordic program reached out and asked if I’d be interested in trying out cross country skiing. He had actually been talking with my director from triathlon, just knowing that there had been these classifications that were cut from triathlon, and he thought maybe they could try some talent transfer and find some athletes. So it gave me this opportunity to still have a chance to compete in a sport that was already a Paralympic sport.

OHT: What was that discovery like – finding this whole world of Paralympics sports and discovering that you had this competitive fire?

Gretsch: I think a lot of people, if they grew up with a disability, they feel like they don’t belong when they’re a kid or maybe they were bullied. I’m really lucky — I never experienced that. I don’t know why, if it was my parents are what, but I just never felt that. And so when I found adaptive sports, it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is the thing that I’ve been looking for my whole life that I just never found and here’s finally a group where I feel like I belong.” To be honest, I didn’t know really anyone else with a disability other than seeing all the other kids at the doctor’s office.

I never felt like I belonged in that space when I was at the doctor’s office. I’m like, “This is not where I belong. I belong in school, where I have my friends, where I’m doing things.” But when I found adaptive sports, I think it was like, finding other people with a disability that had that same mindset as me. I thought, “Okay, these people are competitive. They’re athletes. They’re also winning.” So that was cool for me to find.

OHT: Your paratriathlon classification is finally added to the program for the Tokyo Olympics and you win gold. What did that mean to win that gold medal?

Gretsch: I think that just made it so much more special, that I had to wait for it. It really did feel like this culmination of everything that I had done to that point, for like the past nine years of doing adaptive sports. …

I had just learned so many different things throughout the years that I had been doing triathlon, and I felt like everything that I learned was used in that race in order to make that happen. I can probably look at it with these really rosy glasses because it worked out well for me. But it’s cool looking back, because it was such a close race, it makes you think about all of those little things, and you can be really proud of those things that that got you there. Today, that’s probably my favorite moment and my most proud moment because I can think of all of those things that led me there.

OHT: Can you talk about how you deal with the relentless pace of being a multisport athlete and how you approach the transitions between sports and seasons?

Gretsch: My approach used to be, year-round, that I’m going to try to be the best Nordic skier I can be and the best triathlete, kind of at the detriment of both. Whereas now, the approach that I’m taking is, when I’m in the Nordics season, I’m a Nordic skier, and everything that I’m doing is in service of that. … And then when I’m in the triathlon season, I am fully committed to triathlon. I really try to be respectful of those two seasons.

OHT: Considering all that you’ve achieved, what goals have yet to accomplish?

Gretsch: From a Nordic side of things, I really want to feel like for the full program — those six individual races across the Paralympic Games – that I put in solid performances, and for me, that means medaling in those six events. That’s something I haven’t done and is a really big goal for me. I think there’s always something more that you want to do. Thinking about triathlon, I feel like so much more potential that I have. And I think that’s always what you’re chasing after: How can I get more?

OHT: I read in a couple different articles that you really hope to destigmatize the idea of “disability” and want people to think of Paralympians as more than just inspirational stories. What is that you hope people do take away from seeing you and hearing stories like yours?

Gretsch: The hope is that you just see an athlete. I think all of us look at the adaptive equipment that we use to compete, and that really is what allows us to compete. But after that, we’re athletes. We’re putting the same effort and in heart into training. So that’s what you want other people to see — the athletes and athletic performance, and not with this qualifier with it. …

But there’s this whole other side, too, where there needs to be more visibility and more understanding about our world and our lived experience. Access is still a really big issue, and just because I’m an athlete with a disability doesn’t mean everything’s solved. There are still big accessibility issues that have to be addressed.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Protect the dream: Paralympic champion Mallory Weggemann on her journey to motherhood

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