Three-time Paralympic champion Kendall Gretsch’s journey from Olin Library to Tokyo gold

| Senior Sports Editor
A person standing on a metal device pushes off the snow with two red poles. She wears the number 40 in a white and blue jersey. Behind her is a snow landscape with blue and yellow plastic barriers.

Kendall Gretsch skis towards the finish line at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games. She won two gold medals that year before adding another this summer in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Joe Kusumoto Photography)

It’s August 2021, and the sweltering Tokyo sun beats down on a large blue racetrack in Odaiba Marine Park. It’s quieter than usual – pandemic protocols still restrict most spectators on this day, save for a small bundle of athletes at the front of the largely empty stands. They let out a cheer as U.S. Paralympian and Washington University alum Kendall Gretsch settles herself into her racing wheelchair for the final leg of the paratriathlon. She’s over a minute behind world No. 1 Lauren Parker, the current first-place occupant. With four laps left to make history, Gretsch pushes off, looking to gain ground. She has a lot to cover. 

Competing in the Paralympics was not always the goal for Kendall Gretsch. Growing up in the suburbs outside of Chicago, she competed in a slew of sports — softball, basketball and even swim all throughout high school — but she wouldn’t have defined herself as an athlete. She was competitive, but mostly with herself; she had never seriously trained for anything, and she had never heard the term “adaptive sport” in her life. Her passion for math and science, as highlighted by attending, in her words, a “really nerdy” engineering camp as a teenager, occupied the majority of her focus growing up. 

Like many STEM-inclined high schoolers, WashU seemed like a natural choice for Gretsch. “[Growing up] outside Chicago, I think WashU is kind of always in the back of your mind on the list of places to go,” she said. “I just kind of went down and visited and really loved the campus.” 

Gretsch, for better reasons than most freshmen, was nervous about her first days on campus and how people would make their first impressions of her. Gretsch was born with spina bifida, a spinal condition with a wide variety of effects that largely depend on the individual; for Gretsch, it means she walks with crutches and competes with the help of more complex adaptive equipment, such as the racing wheelchair she uses during the final leg of the paratriathlon. But while it may be the first thing people noticed at a glance, Gretsch says that after she settled in at WashU, her condition did not factor much into her college experience. “It really didn’t stand out as a barrier. At that point, I’ve had a disability my whole life, so I was used to adapting so much,” she said, joking that walking around on crutches even came with its perks. “I got to sign up for classes first, and I got all my electronic books from the disability office, which was pretty sweet.” 

After a year off from sports during her freshman year, Gretsch ached for an athletic outlet. That came in the form of Dare2Tri, an Illinois-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to “removing barriers to sports and fitness.” It was there that she was introduced to adaptive sports, the paratriathlon and the idea her athletic pursuits could go beyond just a hobby. “[Dare2Tri] basically takes away any excuse that you could have to say no to doing a triathlon. And so as soon as I did that, I was just hooked,” Gretsch said. “I was also introduced to this path, that it can be more than just some exercises. I could be an athlete and I could be competing at the highest level in the sport.”

In keeping with her penchant for choosing the most difficult option, the paratriathlon was an immediate fit for Gretsch. “I think I just like the challenge of it. There’s something that’s so intriguing about it,” she said. “You have to have that that mindset of pushing yourself because you’re riding this line of ‘How hard and how painful, or how long can I enjoy the pain for?'” If that sounds insane, you’re not alone — Gretsch knows, but she still loves it. 

That same competitive edge drew her to WashU’s notoriously difficult biomedical engineering (BME) program, where she excelled. As is the case with most BME students, Gretsch was busy — very busy. By senior year, Gretsch was working on her senior project — 3D printing a functioning prosthetic arm for a young girl — while training on the weekends she had free. It was a grueling schedule, one Gretsch credits for ingraining in her such a strong work ethic. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice of having to not do things because it’s not the right decision,” she said. “As an athlete, you can’t go home all the time, and so I think that mentality translates.”

In her sparse free time, Gretsch made sure to enjoy her time at WashU, whether it was watching Major Lazer at WILD or spending afternoons with her friends getting milkshakes at Fozzie’s Sandwich Emporium (she highly recommends the salted caramel pretzel milkshake). Still, as for many WashU students, long nights in Olin Library or marathon study sessions at Kaldi’s (formerly Kayak’s, her favorite study spot) were a staple of her experience.

It didn’t take long to see her work pay off. After training for two years while working for her diploma, Gretsch jumped off the graduation stage and onto the podium, capturing first place in her first serious competition, the 2014 Pan American Championships. From there, the awards quickly piled up: the 2014 and 2015 national championships, world championships from 2014-2016 and an ESPY nomination to boot. In just a few years of competing, Gretsch had skyrocketed to the top of her sport.

***

Kendall Gretsch is through lap two of four in the biggest race of her life. She’s 44 seconds behind Lauren Parker, who is still too far out in front for Gretsch to see. Her arms are screaming at her. Her entire body is screaming at her. She grits her teeth and keeps pushing.  

Gretsch has never chosen the easy path. Whether it’s enrolling in arguably the most difficult major at WashU or choosing the most grueling event in the Paralympics, second best has never been an option. So when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not choose her paratriathlon classification for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Gretsch didn’t sit on her laurels and hope for better luck in 2020. She found a winter event — scratch that, she found two winter events: cross-country skiing and biathlon. The director of the US Para-Nordic Skiing program in Madison, Wisconsin reached out to her in 2016 and invited her to try out another endurance sport to give her a medal opportunity in the winter games. In between the summer season, where she trained for national paratriathlon competitions, Gretsch now spent her winters training for the 2018 Pyeongchang games.      

She understated the difficulty when talking about it, but make no mistake: learning a new event is incredibly challenging. Gretsch said it took three years before she felt comfortable with the paratriathlon, so learning two entirely new events, faced with an even shorter timetable, seems impossible. Especially for the biathlon, with its seemingly arbitrary combination of long-distance skiing and riflery, Gretsch had to “make that switch from one type of athlete to the other,” from extreme stamina to deadshot accuracy in a heartbeat. It’s not something most athletes can do. 

Despite the challenge, she found herself in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Games. Gretsch said that since she wasn’t exactly competing in her primary event, some of the pressure was off. “I was still pretty new to the scene at that time, so it was great because I could just come and enjoy the experience so much and not really have an extreme amount of pressure, or expectation of how I should be doing,” she said. 

How did she fare in those games?  

Two gold medals. On top of that, Gretsch became the first American woman to medal in the biathlon in either the Olympics or Paralympics. Despite starting the event only two years prior, despite having to learn to shoot, despite splitting training with the paratriathlon, Gretsch went into Pyeongchang and made history.

Looking back, she thought the lack of experience in those competitions actually benefited her. “I’m almost glad that I was pretty naïve going into it,” Gretsch laughed. “It really just allowed me to enjoy the experience and not get caught up too much in the competition of it.” 

Coming out of those games, while she appreciated how incredible her performance was, she also acknowledged that her work was not done. With her sights focused on Tokyo after the 2018 games, she was going to do whatever it took to secure a gold in the paratriathlon. And if Pyeongchang proved one thing, it is that Kendall Gretsch is more than capable of pulling off the impossible.

*** 

It’s the final lap of the 2021 Tokyo Paratriathlon. Kendall Gretsch has cut the gap between her and Lauren Parker, but she still needs an incredible final lap to have a chance at winning. In a few minutes, somebody will break the blue tape suspended at the finish line. Gretsch pushes on, hoping she has enough in the tank to be the one to do it. On the sideline, her handler, Dan Tun, shouts out her splits – she’s 26 seconds behind. As Gretsch disappears around the curve of the track, Tun heads toward the finish line, hoping his friend can pull off a miracle.

This wasn’t unexpected. Coming into the race, both Tun and Gretsch knew that a come-from-behind scenario would be almost certain given the way the paratriathlon works: The athletes’ starts are offset based on their disability — the more limited they are, the more of a “head start” they receive. It’s a complicated classification system, one that even the athletes joke you need a PhD to understand, but the result is that Gretsch started the race about four minutes behind.

It’s nothing new, but that makes it no less stressful for Tun, who, while Gretsch makes up ground, is wearing a path into the bright blue carpet as he nervously paces back and forth. 

Tun is on the sideline acting as Gretsch’s handler. For athletes in the PTWC-H2 classification, such as Gretsch, handlers help in the transition between legs of the race, exchanging equipment, changing clothing and prepping for the next leg. In the final transition, Tun helped Gretsch out of the bike and into her racing wheelchair. Time doesn’t stop during transitions, so a good handler can make the split-second difference in a close race. For Gretsch, Tun says, it’s not too tall of a task. “Because she’s so organized and independent, it’s fairly easy.”

Still, the relationship between handler and athlete, especially on the biggest stage, takes trust. For Tun and Gretsch, that goes back to 2012, when Gretsch first joined Dare2Tri, of which Tun is co-founder. 

Tun says that Gretsch struck him as remarkably laid back upon first meeting. “Kendall is very much the same now as she was then, just a very cool, calm, collected person, and that’s what I sort of appreciate about her,” he said. That’s not to say that Gretsch didn’t push herself. “I think she likes that drive. She likes to see, whether it’s competing against others or maybe even just competing against herself, what’s the next challenge — ‘I know what my limit is, and now I want to get to that limit, push it and then find what my new limit is.’”

Tun watched in awe as Gretsch scorched her way to the top of her field. “She took all the right steps. It was a natural, smart progression. She didn’t go from, ‘I’m this new athlete, and I want to go right to the Paralympic Games,’ she did all the work in between to become the athlete that she is today.” Now, at the precipice of a gold medal in the Summer Games, Tun hopes that the steady climb she’s taken to get here lands her on the top of the podium after the race.

Tun says that Gretsch is a perfect example of what Dare2Tri tries to emphasize as an organization: Paralympic athletes are far more than their disability. “This isn’t just an inspirational story, this is something they do for a living,” said Tun. “Inspiration is great, and everyone becomes inspired for different reasons, but these athletes, that’s not their sole purpose. Their purpose is to train and race to be the best in the world.” 

Gretsch is undeniably an inspiration to anyone who watches her compete, but to label her — or any Paralympic athlete, for that matter — as simply a heartwarming story is reductive. It’s an all-too-common narrative that she and everyone involved with the Paralympics wants to change.

These aren’t participation medals — they’re taken with grit, heart and the drive to push harder than the next athlete. Gretsch has devoted her life over the past years toward this race, and the Tokyo games are an opportunity for her to prove on the largest stage that she and everyone competing have the same capacity for greatness as those without disabilities.

*** 

Lauren Parker, having held the lead for the entire race, turns onto the blue carpet, the final stretch leading up to the finish line. She looks exhausted, but the finish looms right ahead, and it seems like the gold is hers. 

Just a moment later, Gretsch flies around the corner, head full of steam and barreling to the finish. The American athletes watching from the sideline, realizing she has a shot, go crazy. Among them is her best friend and U.S. teammate, Hailey Danz, yelling at the top of her lungs. Danz doesn’t know it, but Gretsch can hear her. Gretsch keeps pushing, and as the gap between her and Parker quickly shrinks, Danz can tell — it is going to come down to the tape.

Danz knows what Gretsch is feeling right now. In fact, a mere 24 hours earlier, it was Danz who was gritting her teeth through the final lap of the paratriathlon. But while her race didn’t end in the result she wanted (she finished with the silver medal), the thought couldn’t be farther from her mind. She’s here for Kendall.

Danz, who went through an upper-level leg amputation as a teen and competes using a prosthetic leg, is in a separate classification as Gretsch. But while the two can’t race alongside one another, they still have been together for every step of this long journey. Danz and Gretsch met back in 2013 through Dare2Tri, where they bonded over their mutual love of competing and, of all things, junk food. “I feel like one of the very first conversations that we had was about how much we loved Ben and Jerry’s and wanted to be sponsored by them,” Danz joked.

In those early days with Dare2Tri, Danz says that, as the Paralympics had not gained as much traction then as they have now, she and Gretsch were “pioneers” of the paratriathlon.

As they both developed as athletes, Danz quickly learned of the “quiet confidence” that made Gretsch so successful; throughout the years, the two continued competing and maintained a friendly relationship, but it wasn’t until 2019 that they became the tight-knit pair they are today. After qualifying for the Tokyo games, they both traveled to the U.S. training facility in Colorado to prepare full-time for the games. When COVID struck, however, the two were stranded in a facility-turned-ghost town. “It was us and maybe 10 other people that we never even saw. And so we really relied on each other very heavily during that time,” Danz said. “I don’t think I could have survived it without her.”

It’s during this time that Danz saw the other Kendall Gretsch emerge — the funny, insightful, charismatic person that few get to see. “I think the biggest misconception about Kendall is, everyone thinks that she’s just super quiet and shy and reserved, and that is true until she feels comfortable around you, but once she feels comfortable she’s the funniest person that you’ll ever meet,” Danz said. 

“She just drops these like these truth bombs that put people in their place. And they’re just so funny because you don’t expect it to come from her, because when you are first getting to know her she’s just so quiet, and then when she just says these super savage remarks, you’re just like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so funny because I wasn’t expecting you to say that,’” Danz said. 

From binging Gossip Girl to making pizzas in a waffle maker, it’s not an understatement to say that both Gretsch and Danz found a best friend during their time in quarantine. Danz says that the two now “basically speak in our own language” given how much time they spend together. They even began their own Instagram series reviewing various Trader Joe’s items, of which they have too many to list.

When the IOC approved Gretsch’s classification for the 2020 games and they both qualified, Danz and Gretsch were over the moon. And after a year’s delay, when they finally made it to Tokyo, they didn’t quite know how to react. “I think one thing I wasn’t anticipating was just how emotional that whole week was going to be like,” Danz said. “With so much pressure around the event, and just reflecting on all the years that went into it, there were just moments where it would all just hit you.”

Just like they had during quarantine, the two relied on one another as the pressure mounted before their race. As Gretsch prepared for a race nearly a decade in the making for her, among her other teammates, it was Danz who reminded her she was ready for this moment.

And Danz, being one of the few with true insight into Gretsch’s full character, knows that beneath the cool demeanor, the light-hearted jokester and the caring friend, Kendall Gretsch is a competitor – she wants to win.  

*** 

With yards to go to the tape, Gretsch rockets up from behind, moving faster than seems possible. As Lauren Parker fades, Kendall Gretsch pushes harder.

Maybe it was the late nights she spent in the Lopata Hall basement working instead of sleeping. Maybe it was the endurance she gained from Nordic training to become the first female American to win the biathlon gold. Or maybe it was the drive to prove to the world just how good of an athlete she is. Whatever it was, Gretsch has come back from a minute behind in one of the greatest efforts in Paralympic history.

At the last possible moment, Gretsch inches past Parker and breaks the tape first. Nine years ago, she wanted to start exercising more and tried a paratriathlon on a whim — today, she’s won Paralympic gold. She gradually brings her chair to a stop. After the moment of shock subsides, Kendall Gretsch breaks into a triumphant smile.

It’s rare in life to experience a pause in time where everything you’ve sacrificed — long days of training, injuries, years of wondering whether it’ll ever happen — crystallizes into a single moment that rewards it all; a moment so pure that you might think you’re peering into a snow globe or emerging from a deep fog.

Kendall Gretsch got just that. Crossing that finish line, she accomplished a dream hatched nine years prior, and in doing so, she perfectly captured a critical message that she, Danz, Tun and  countless other people with disabilities have worked to amplify to the public. The Paralympics don’t indulge some fantasy of “actually competing.” They are a platform for the most talented athletes in the world to compete at the highest level. It takes blood, sweat and tears. It takes dedication and drive and sacrifice. It takes failure. Kendall Gretsch didn’t make it to this stage, to this moment, because she simply asked for it. She took it. On that track on a hot Tokyo afternoon, she proved that while athletes take many different appearances, excellence is universally recognizable.

“I think a lot of people just look at [the Paralympics] like, ‘Oh wow, it’s so great that you’re just out there,’ and, you know, we’re not just ‘out there.’ We’re doing some serious stuff,” Danz said. “It’s legitimately impressive.” 

The Tokyo games were the most widely-broadcasted Paralympic Games in their 60-year history, and that exposure is critical towards changing the narrative and giving these athletes the credit they deserve. Events like the Paralympics prove to skeptics that, yes, people with disabilities are still capable of great things, and they are the first of many steps toward destigmatizing disability and providing social equality for a group who, for too long, have not received it. 

Gretsch sees the public perception surrounding the Paralympics and disability in general beginning to change. “Growing up, I never thought of myself as an athlete because I didn’t see other athletes with disabilities,” she said. “I think seeing that we are true athletes that are working just as hard as other athletes, and seeing that you can have this full life and full experience… is important for people with disabilities, but just everyone seeing it is awesome.”

The 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles are of particular focus for athletes like Gretsch, who want to further disability awareness in the U.S. But for now, Gretsch is staying focused on what lies closer ahead. With the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing just around the corner, followed by the 2024 games in Paris, Gretsch will be busy. Like that’s ever stopped her.  

 

 

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