She stood on the podium, gazing out into the crowd hoping to catch eyes with her family. As the anthem played and the stars and stripes were raised, she quickly wiped a tear from her eye.
In a way, the scene was a bit surreal. Here she was – just a kid who grew up outside Chicago now all of a sudden standing on the top step of the Paralympic podium. A gold medal – the first of two – hanging around her neck.
Cross country skier and biathlete Kendall Gretsch had packed a lot of life into her 25 years. But a chance encounter with a Central Cross Country Skiing adaptive camp five years earlier changed her life.
If you hang around with Kendall, you’re struck first by her passion for life and sport. Her disability is secondary. Gretsch was born with Spina Bifidia, a birth defect that impacts the spine. As a young girl growing up in Downers Grove, Illinois, she approached life with as much normalcy as possible – including sports.
“I didn’t start using crutches until high school,” she said. “I was pretty independent and could play sports. I wasn’t the fastest runner on the team, but there wasn’t anything that I felt I thought needed to be adapted.”
That ‘can do’ attitude set a pathway for her life. She ran, she swam, she biked and more.
“It was really an important thing for me to do.” she recalled. “It helped me learn a lot about goal setting and how to be competitive with yourself, not necessarily against others. In swimming I can’t kick. I knew someone I was racing against who could kick and use arms would be faster. It’s an individual sport and I can set my own goals – times to improve on. As I got more serious about sport you can be driven and motivated by your competitors but you have to set goals for yourself and push yourself.”
In high school, Gretsch competed in sport to have fun and to integrate with friends. “From a social aspect it’s important to feel you are integrated,” she said. “It’s cool to be able to do an adaptive sport and compete against others on the same playing field. But as kid you just want to be involved.”
When she was 20, an engineering student at Washington University in St. Louis, she found her real passion for sport, discovering triathlon – winning three straight world titles.
“I fell in love with it right away,” she said. “Part of it was that I had been doing sports for so long and had gotten used to racing against myself. So it was fun to compete against someone on a level playing field. And realizing that there was this whole competitive side I could be involved with. It brought sport to a new level for me.”
It was an evolving time for paratriathlon. It was a new sport for the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro with not all classifications included. There was no wheelchair classification for women. That motivated Gretsch to look around a bit for other sports that would have a Paralympic pathway.
Having moved to Madison, Wis. to take a job with medical software giant Epic, Gretsch had been encouraged by friends to participate in CXC adaptive clinics. At the same time, Paralympic biathlon and cross country coach BethAnn Chamberlain was on the recruiting trail.
“I had not been on skis before,” laughed Gretsch. “When I was in college someone had said to me they knew I was moving to Madison and knew about CXC. ‘They have a ski program, you should check it out.”
The first winter was just experimenting – attending one event. But each winter her skills advanced. In the 2016-17 season she upped her training with CXC, taking more trips to northern Wisconsin and the Twin Cities. She took time off work to compete on the IPC World Cup tour, attending the Paralympic test event in PyeongChang.
This past winter she took a seasonal leave from Epic for four months, kicking it off with pre-season training in Bozeman, Mont. She traveled on the IPC World Cup tour working with cross country coach Eileen Carey and biathlon coach Gary Colliander. It was the first time she came into a season with a full training plan. And it worked. A top-five at the opening World Cup in December. Second in a biathlon sprint in January.
“I was so new to cross country skiing and hadn’t had a full winter to train,” said Gretsch. “But knowing I had the whole winter – the potential to improve was there. I was still so new there was a bigger chance to improve.”
One of Gretsch’s strong points is her sense of balance in how she approaches competition. In high school, she accepted that she wasn’t the fastest and set goals not against others, but within herself. Now that she was racing others, she found a special balance.
“The way the racing goes, all of our races are time trials so you have the opportunity to start your own race,” she said. “But you can still use that motivation of competing against other people. But you have to be personally motivated within yourself. If you aren’t motivated to set your personal goals, then things could get miserable pretty quickly! It pushes you to be a better athlete.”
Her first Paralympics was a whirlwind. Gretsch had no big expectations. She liked the event sequence with strongest biathlon event first. She had a great cheering section in Korea lead by mom and dad Patty and Rick, her sisters Sarah and Stephenie, brother-in-law Nick and many more. She was relaxed and ready.
In the opening event, she became the first American woman to win an Olympic or Paralympic biathlon medal – taking gold in the 6k – coming back a few days later to win gold in the 12k cross country.
“For me, I just want to have a solid race putting together your best skiing and shooting. I try not to set too many expectations for myself that would make me nervous.”
It was a whirlwind – interviews, doping control, medal ceremony, a brief visit with family. Little time to let it sink in that she was best in the world!
True to her character, even in the prime of her Paralympic athletic career, Gretsch wants to give back. When CXC Executive Director Yuriy Gusev asked her to help with the CXC Foundation, she was quick to engage. She has become a key part of the vision for a new CXC Center of Excellence west of Madison.
“It’s pretty exciting and cool to see how it is progressing,” said Gretsch, who visited the site in June. “From a personal side, I think it would be awesome to have a place in Madison where I could go to train. But what is really cool about it is how it will be used as a community center – getting kids involved in getting skiing.”
While Gretsch has accumulated quite a trophy case in triathlon, biathlon and cross country the last few years, sport is really so much more to her. “Staying involved in sport is so important to me,” she said. “It does a lot from the aspect of staying healthy and building community around yourself.
“That’s what I like so much about triathlon and cross country. Even if you’re not a serious competitor, just the community and the people you can meet is my favorite part of sport.”
From a young teen who didn’t worry too much about being one of the slowest on the team to the double Paralympic gold medalist – Kendall Gretsch is making a statement about the role of sport in life.