Chris Waddell was born in Massachusetts and grew up skiing the local mountains there. From an early age, he had the competitive fire, establishing himself as one of the best young skiers in the country. Every year, as the skies of New England turned to winter and the shocking oranges and reds that dominate the trees in that part of the world fell to the ground, Chris’s pulse invariably quickened as he thought about the racing season in front of him. He skied well enough through his younger years to earn himself the opportunity to ski at the collegiate level.
In 1988, Chris had started his freshman year at Middlebury College, having made it on to one of the best ski teams in the country. As that first racing season approached, Chris was skiing when one of his bindings pre-released in the middle of a turn. He has no memory of what followed, but when he came to, he learned that he had broken his back. The injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, completely changing his life. Years later, he realized, for the better.
Chris says that the best times of his life were the years after he became a paraplegic. That perspective set up a life of seeing opportunities rather than challenges and helped turn an event that would have broken weaker men into a positive. But that doesn’t mean it was all easy.
Immediately following his accident, Chris desperately wanted to find a “cure,” to get back what he had lost. At first, that meant believing he could walk again. But he eventually began to believe that his paralysis was his cure, and it made him far more whole than he would have been had he never lost the ability to walk.
What became Chris’s life motto, “it’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you,” guided what happened next.
He returned to college two months after his accident and started to ski using a monoski. The accomplishments that followed are almost unbelievable: Within two years he was named to the US Disabled Ski Team, winning 11 medals across four Winter Paralympic Games. Became the most decorated male monoskier in world history. Joined the US Track Team and competed in three Summer Paralympic Games. Set a world record in the 200m. Was inducted into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame and the Paralympic Hall of Fame. Honored as one of the “25 Greatest Skiers in North America” by Skiing Magazine and by the Dalai Lama as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion.”
After he retired from Olympic competition, he needed a new challenge and set his sights on something so audacious it didn’t seem logical. Chris wanted to climb one of the world’s “SevenSummits,” the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro stands at an intimidating 19,340 feet, and it represented a challenge never completed by a paraplegic before.
The next two years were consumed with preparation. Designing a nearly-indestructible handcycle to handle the diverse terrain of the mountain and getting his body ready for the grueling challenge. After months of training, Chris and his team began the climb. Powered exclusively by his upper body strength, he cranked through foot after foot, making measurable, but exhausting progress. After weeks of climbing, Chris glimpsed the summit and a few hours later, he reached it.
With reflection, this path to the top became his life approach. And it became the basis for his foundation One Revolution, through which he works to create a world where individuals with disabilities are seen, both by themselves and others, for their potential instead of their limitations.
“People see tragedy in me. I see a gift,” says Waddell. “If I hadn’t broken my back, I would never have become who I am, I wouldn’t have competed for 15 years as a professional athlete, and I wouldn’t have had a platform to create change.” That philosophy, that one’s approach to challenge is what actually defines our potential, is what came into vivid focus on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. It’s a reminder to all of us that we can all achieve our goals by breaking them down and turning the wheel one revolution at a time.