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.
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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

2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship