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 Springs, 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.