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The Rapid (Multiseason) Rise of Gold-Medalist Kendall Gretsch

Gretsch captured the world’s attention with her viral sprint finish in the Tokyo paratriathlon wheelchair event this year. But she’s not done yet.

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I knew she was cutting into the lead, but was she going to run out of time? 

Lauren came past… and then I saw Kendall, just charging. One last left turn, downhill, not quite 90 degrees. We practiced it multiple times. My heart rate went up 10-fold. 

She’s got to nail this turn perfectly. She can’t screw up any speed. But don’t high side it and crash. She nailed the turn, and from that point: ‘Holy crap, she has a chance.’ 

We’d done so many sessions just focused on that closing speed. I couldn’t see her finish, so had to wait for comms over the radio.

But I was confident because I know Kendall and know she‘s not giving up until the race is done.

That’s the recollection of Derrick Williamson, head coach of USA paratriathlon for the Paralympics this summer, but if you haven’t seen the video of Kendall Gretsch’s finish in the wheelchair class in Tokyo, go find that footage.

Spoiler alert: She wins gold.

https://twitter.com/NBCOlympics/status/1431750028201238531

Becoming, in fact, only the third U.S. woman to top the podium in both winter and summer Paralympics. Yet no matter how many times one views it—and it’s been a lot—you remain convinced that she won’t break the tape first.

Gretsch’s blue carpet charge in the racing chair not only reels in the courageous Lauren Parker of Australia at the last second, but is a microcosm of the indomitable spirit that has led to the 29-year-old from Downers Grove, Illinois, to become a standout athlete of her generation—and not just in tri.

Not only did she win the PTWC division in Tokyo, but Gretsch had already won gold in the 6K sitting biathlon and 12K cross-country skiing in the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Already she’s begun preparations to defend those titles in March in Beijing—along with four other golden opportunities in an expanded Paralympic program, plus possibly a shot at the relay. With all this on her resume, how exactly does she introduce herself?

“I don’t know. Er, I think I just say, ‘Hi, I’m Kendall.’”

Sport is life and work these days. While the qualified biomedical engineer took on some contracts for hospital systems during lockdown—with a firm appropriately named “Epic”—the athletic pursuits are taking precedence for now, her focus flipping with the seasons.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Best of 2021 Awards

The Beginning

Taking it from the top, Gretsch was born with a type of spina bifida called lipomyelomeningocele (“It’s quite uncommon, and quite a long word!” she said) where a fatty tumor around the spinal cord impinged on nerve development and the corresponding muscles.

“Growing up, I had a little bit more function than now so I just wore leg braces,” she explained. “But before I went to high school I had another surgery because a bunch of scar tissue had built up around my spinal cord again—called retethering. I added forearm crutches to the leg braces and that’s primarily how I get around. Most of the time if people have a retethering it’s usually when they have a growth spurt as a teenager, so hopefully it won’t get worse, but there’s no guarantee.”

Growing up there were no dreams of Paralympic glory. There was, however, a lot of softball, with two older sisters who were very into sports. In fact, “every girl played softball—and we had a big neighborhood swim team. But I never thought of myself as competitive. It was more something I could do with my friends. They were all doing it, so I might as well do it too.”

From Here To There

The organization that helped her make a move toward paratri also deserves some credit: The not-for-profit, Chicago-based Dare2tri doesn’t just get people with disabilities and visual impairments involved in triathlon, they also get them to the top of the podium. Of the USA’s table-topping five-medal haul from Tokyo, three—Hailey Danz, Grace Norman, and Gretsch—are Dare2tri graduates.

“They take away any excuses you might have,” Gretsch explained. “For adaptive sports, the big one is equipment. So, they have all the specialist equipment: hand cycles, racing chairs, tandem bikes… If you say you can’t swim, they’ll find someone to swim for you, and you get to do the rest.”

Dan Tun, co-founder, program director, and coach, may not have a medal to his name, but he deserves one. Tun was instrumental in introducing the sport to Kendall, and then supporting her journey through to Tokyo, where he acted as her race handler—helping her to switch equipment in transition. Coach Williamson added: “Dan has the attitude and energy you want to surround yourself with. He was there from the beginning. It’s one of those full circle stories that’s so cool.”

Tun can also nurture talent. When Gretsch left for St. Louis for her studies, Dare2tri helped find adaptive sports groups locally who could lend her equipment. “It would have been easy for my sport to slip into a more casual thing,” Gretsch said. “But they saw the potential and said: ‘No, you’re going to make this happen!’”

Success

And make it happen she did. A trio of paratriathlon world championships followed from 2014 to 2016. “I was so new and oblivious to what the sport could be and what it was,” she said of the first of those triumphs in Edmonton, Canada. “I hadn’t been competing long and looking back now, it’s cool to see how much the sport has grown. That’s been the most exciting thing for me. Nine years I’ve been doing tri, and I’m seeing more people compete and raise the level of competitiveness.”

When only the men’s paratri wheelchair class was selected for Rio in 2016 (the visually impaired women also raced to keep gender parity), Gretsch’s attention turned to the snow—more on that to come. The schedule meant she’d miss the chance to retain and regain her paratri title in 2017 and 2018, before returning for a rare defeat—by Australia’s Parker—in 2019.

The two would meet again two years later in Tokyo as Parker was handed a 4-minute, 4-second head-start due to the factoring system that attempts to account for individual disabilities to make for fairer racing; Parker possessing lesser core function.

The gap was whittled down bit by bit over the 750m swim, 20K handcycle, and 5K push-chair in searing conditions before the final dash to the line. “I was chipping away and knew when I started that last lap it would be close. A sprint finish was something we’d trained for. The racing chair has probably been the most difficult to learn, it’s so technical, so it was cool to be able to pull it all together.

“Watching it is so surreal, I hope it brought awareness to the sport. Maybe para-athletes will see the video and want to do paratri. It’s also fun watching other people watch it to see their reaction. One of my favorite videos is a Go-Pro recording of my teammates. They all go crazy. I’ve watched a lot of the videos, but that is the only one where I can instantly feel how I felt during the race because my teammates were such a large part of my Tokyo experience. We trained so well going into it and throughout the whole race I could hear them. Their energy every time I went through the transition area was such a big help. It’s so special to be able to share that moment.”

What’s Next

Providing her class is re-selected (not every category is raced in every Paralympics), Paris 2024 will be Gretsch’s next big target in paratriathlon. “I think the fact it’s only three years away makes it easier to wrap my mind around training for [it]. I’d love to be able to race and have my family there to watch. That would be the missing piece.”

Before that though comes the small matter of the Beijing Winter Paralympics in March, where she’ll not only defend the two titles she currently holds, but aim for four more. Typically, it means her training base switches from U.S. paratri headquarters in Colorado Springs to Montana, although right now she’s in Canmore in Canada’s Banff National Park for a six-week block ahead of a first world cup race in December.

“It’ll be a really competitive Games. China is known for showing up strong as hosts, so they’ll be tough to beat. It’s going to be a challenge for sure. Three cross-country [events], three biathlon [events], and then a cross-country relay. A much larger program than tri, where there’s only one shot.”

Gretsch started skiing in 2014 when it became clear paratri in Rio was off the agenda and the director of the Nordic ski program reached out, suggesting her talent for endurance might translate well. It also meant an introduction to shooting in the ski-shoot format of biathlon, where missing the 13mm target—“about the size of the home button an iPhone”—from 10m is punished by having to ski penalty loops. “You must try to calm yourself and focus,” Kendall explained. “Anyone that has done an endurance event gets to a point where they’re not thinking straight!”

Relaxation mid-event is one thing, having time to relax when your career leaps from season to season is another. “This year I took the most amount of time off in quite a while,” she added. “About two weeks. I didn’t do anything. There’s so much mental energy that goes into preparing for a Games.”

As a resident athlete through both summer and winter, what could be a grueling schedule is eased by the environment and bonhomie of her teammates, several of whom are also dual-sport athletes. “In some ways it makes it feel a little normal,” she said. “It’s so much easier to have teammates and friends to train with. They hold you accountable. Maybe you’re not psyched to get up and train day-in and day-out, but they pull you through the tough days.”

As for a favorite sport? “It’s so hard to pick, I love both sports for similar reasons. Tri and skiing have given me the opportunity to be outside and experience the world through sport. I’ve been lucky to travel to so many cool places that no one would ever go to as a tourist. Being outside to compete has such appeal to me and I get to do that all year round.”

Gretsch In Training

Just what does it take to train as an elite performer in paratri? Triathlete spoke to Gretsch and her coach Derick Williamson for the inside track.

Gretsch said:

“It might be swimming five times a week, cycling [handcycle] six times, and running [racing chair] maybe three-to-four times. Plus, strength training three times. It’s typical to have three sessions a day, but there is a lot more outside of the training in terms of recovery physio, massage, and nutrition, so it feels like a full time job. Often, I’ll leave the house at 8am for our training centre and don’t get back until 5pm.

“A go-to swim session in our group might be 16 x 100m, as two on and one easy, with the two on having to hold the same pace. At the beginning of the season, we have longer rest intervals and progress to chip away at the rest but hold the same pace. About 1:29 per 100m.

“On the bike, the sessions are all written to power. Two hours is pretty typical, and we did some 3 x 20-minute efforts leading into Tokyo. It’s the opposite on the run. The unique thing about paratri in a racing chair is that most of the time the courses have a lot of turns, with more technical elements than a racing chair is cut out for. I need to get really good at acceleration and speed changes, so we do a lot of 30-seconds on, 10-seconds off combinations, changing up all the time.”

Williamsaon said:

“Saying an athlete is easy to coach is almost cliche, but Kendall is. She’s absolutely what you look for in a high-performance athlete: open-minded and receptive, but also offers really good quality introspective feedback.

“She loves hard work, loves training, and that manifests in her results.She also benefits from a deep understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing and that helps with the buy-in, as you can see in that finish from the never-going-to-give-up attitude.

“As quiet as Kendall can be, she is still very goal-driven, and expects the absolute best out of herself. As coaches, we’ve got to understand the demands that she’s under. It’s not just physiological. Both winter and summer sports demand a lot of travel which is added stress, so one of the biggest things with Kendall is working with her winter coach and making sure we plan recovery time. As an athlete, she’ll just want to train all the time, but she understands the need to build in solid recovery blocks, making sure there’s time between the seasons to let the body and mind recover.

“I’m biased, but being based in Colorado Springs, we can get so much more done relative to remote coaching. The physiology is easy—we understand the demands of competition, but we’ve created a daily environment where everybody wants to work hard. If there’s an underpinning to our culture it’s support and accountability. It’s a model we’ve found success with. Three of our five Paralympic paratri medals came out of the program and we want to continue to build success.”

On others looking to step into paratri…

“The reality is triathlon is not easy. You’re training for three sports within a single sport and need to come with an open mind and willingness to focus on the process and not just right away have all these outcome goals. Give yourself time and have patience, which is a difficult thing for a lot of athletes. Be willing to learn from your team-mates and allow the process to unfold.

“Parasport has gotten so competitive. People don’t realize, these athletes are training full time and that’s what it takes to be successful. Be openminded, patient, focus on the process, and surround yourself with people who have an attitude that reflects what you want to achieve.