Chris Waddell — Pretty Tough Guy

Circa 2010


In conversation with Paralympic athlete Chris Waddell, you rarely get a true sense of his clout and achievements. He’s humble. He’s methodical with his words. He speaks of the things he’s still trying to do—like change attitudes about disability—more than he speaks of the things he has done. But all that he has done makes up a pretty long list.

After all, Waddell remains one of the most accomplished US Paralympic athletes in the history of the Games. The celebrated alpine skier not only competed in the 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002 Paralympic Games, he also swept the gold medals in the 1994 Lillehammer Games, winning all four alpine skiing events (Downhill, Giant Slalom, Slalom and Super-G) and securing his name in the history books with authority. Add to those achievements a gold medal in the 1998 Downhill, along with five silver and two bronze medals, and Waddell’s total count for winter medals stands at a daunting 12.

Though it’s rare that any athlete compete in both the Winter and Summer Games, Waddell has done that, too, winning silver in the 200-meter push-rim wheelchair event at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. He’s also a former model, and was named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 1998.

But to Waddell, all of that is in the past. Lately he busies himself by donating wheelchairs and handcycles in Africa through his foundation, One Revolution, raising social awareness of people with disabilities, and becoming the first American athlete to be inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame. And just this past September, Waddell mastered Mount Kilimanjaro, becoming the first person with paraplegia to the reach the summit, after a climb of 19,334 feet.

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Sure, all the accolades and adventures must be nice. But ask Waddell and he’ll tell you that his awards and accomplishments only provide him a better platform for the social change he seeks in perception of people with disabilities. A change he’s working towards every day.

Josh Pate: What does it mean for you to be called a “Hall of Famer”?

Chris Waddell: It’s pretty funny. Being a Hall of Famer is not something I think about myself. It’s something that I look at other people achieve and I think, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ Because you look at the people you look up to, rather than looking at yourself as someone others look up to. But I hope that from where I am now, I might be able to do for someone else a little bit of what those I looked up to did for me when I was a kid.

JP: So you’re comfortable having others look up to you? You’ll play that role?

CW: I’ve become more comfortable as time has gone on. But it’s an interesting role, and there are definitely responsibilities that come along with it. Since my accident, I now represent a lot more than just myself. That’s been a role that I’ve come into, and so I try to live as well as I can. I hope I can live up to that responsibility while still fully knowing that no one is perfect. I see a lot of my own blemishes, so I don’t want to live in a role where I’m telling people that I’m perfect, that you should do what I do. But you should try learning from your mistakes the way I have.

JP: When you think back on the ski accident in 1988 that left you paralyzed, do you believe that experience changed your life in a positive way?

CW: Definitely. A lot of people look at me like I’m crazy when I say that a lot of good stuff has come out of the accident, but the thing is, I wouldn’t trade my life now for what my life would have been. The accident, and everything that has happened since, has shaped who I am. I’m pretty happy with who I am as a person, but I also think that there’s a distinct possibility that I might have done more with my life the way I am now than I would have done before. Because of that accident, I might have developed a greater reach and I might have made a greater impact. That’s a pretty cool realization, and I certainly don’t want to ever discount that by saying I’d rather things would have worked out differently.

JP: What was your skiing like before the accident?

CW: I skied competitively. I started ski racing when I was six years old, and I raced in Division 1 in college. I was legit, but I was also good enough to know that I wasn’t great.

JP: What was it like making your progression into adaptive skiing and learning a whole new approach to getting down the mountain?

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CW: Learning a different approach is exactly right. Essentially my mind knew what I was supposed to do, but my body had absolutely no ability whatsoever to do it. Talk about a disconnect. So I really had to go and learn a lot of things I might not have had to learn otherwise. I started skiing again three days short of the first anniversary of my accident. That progression was an interesting situation because it took me a good while before I even felt like I could balance and get down the hill. Then it really took me a few years before I felt like I was back in control of skiing. I had my accident in December of ’88, so it took me from ’89-’90 until ’92- ’93 to really feel like I was proficient.

JP: When you began to learn adaptive skiing, was it your goal from the outset to be competitive, or did that come later?

CW: Oh, it was to be competitive from the start. I was a ski racer and I felt like I had never realized my potential as a ski racer. So once I started to relearn, it was sort of a seamless continuation, as funny as that might sound. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do, and this sport is going to teach me who I am.’ I guess I started off with that idea and goal in mind, and it really taught me a bit more than I’d anticipated. Even after my accident, skiing is still the same sport and still the same pursuit for me that it has always been. So I was going to be competitive all the way along, and I was actively looking for that chance—looking to make myself into a great ski racer. Luckily, I was successful, at least in some people’s eyes.

JP: What do you mean when you say that the sport taught you who you are?

CW: With a sport like skiing, there is just so much that goes into being successful. You have to conquer your own fears and worries and insecurities. That process taught me a lot about myself because, in order to be successful, I really had to find a way to master myself. To achieve the success I did, I had to overcome my particular deficiencies. The funny part is, that process is no different whether you’re able-bodied or have a disability.

JP: Very few athletes compete in both the Summer and Winter Games, but you were able to do that. Why did you decided to pursue the Summer Games after having so much success in alpine skiing?

CW: Part of why being inducted into the Hall of Fame is really meaningful to me is because one of my heroes when I first started skiing was a guy named Jim Martinson. I met him as a ski racer when I went into his shop where he builds wheelchairs. I wanted to get a racing wheelchair built for myself, and Jim had won the Boston Marathon. He also had won the Peachtree Road Race. He had won all of these big races and was a guy who I really looked up to. That was a really big deal. He was a big part of the reason I ended up going into two sports, simply because I had seen that he had done it. I had seen how successful he was and he became my version of what it meant to be a successful athlete.

JP: Every role model has his own role model.

CW: Oh, most definitely. Jim is still my role model today. The guy is 63 years old or something and still going fast. It’s all a matter of how people approach their lives. I look at Jim and I say to myself, “Wow, I’d love to be like him. I want to bring that sort of passion and enthusiasm into what I do and achieve the same fun while being super-competitive at the same time.” I’m still trying to follow in his footsteps.

JP: Now let’s tackle the big topic: Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s obviously a huge accomplishment for anybody to climb that summit. Why did you want to do it?

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CW: I felt like Kilimanjaro was an extension of what I had always tried to do as an athlete. As an athlete with a disability, I felt I was there to represent possibility and really to take people’s imagination and try to stretch it a little. It’s so easy for people to look at somebody in a wheelchair and say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that. So I wanted to surprise them. And I felt like in achieving that, I would be able to make a real statement about people with disabilities. I’d force the general public to revisit what they think they know. As an athlete, I didn’t feel that my reach was as great as I wanted it to be. Paralympic athletes weren’t on television, or we weren’t on television enough. So people didn’t get a chance to see what I saw when I was out with these guys, and I wanted to share some of that experience. Kilimanjaro was an opportunity to create a bigger platform and a greater reach, and climbing the mountain was something that was really difficult, something people wouldn’t assume I could do. So my hope is that I was able to represent people in a positive way and shift that paradigm a little. That was the attraction of Kilimanjaro.

JP: Talk about the preparation that went into your climb. It’s not something one decides on a whim, right?

CW: It took a long time, about two years, to get ready to do it. We took a scouting trip in June 2008 because we didn’t know what we were up against. It’s easy to get on the computer and get some images of the mountain, but the images don’t really tell the whole story. So we had to get out there and figure it out.

JP: Did doing your homework help?

CW: Yeah. I had thought I’d have a pretty good shot at being able to do it, and that I could just muscle through that first time. It was harder than anything I had imagined. I had thought, “Oh, it’s going to get harder when we get to the top and it gets steep and the air gets thin because of the altitude.” But it was difficult from the moment we started, and it became way more difficult than I had thought it would be.

JP: Tell us about the equipment that you used.

CW: It’s a handcycle that has 27 gears—a four-wheeled vehicle with each wheel articulating independently. But it was really like taking a Mars Rover and running it on arm and pedal power. We could roll over things pretty easily. I was just pedaling the whole time.

JP: What kind of modifications did you make to the vehicle?

CW: We made some significant modifications: shortened it up, made it narrower, made it lighter and increased the traction. That all made a huge difference. We changed some of the drive-train stuff and some of the internal gearing into traditional bike gearing, which helped as far as efficiency was concerned. So we did a variety of things. For me, it was just about putting in a lot of long hours. We went and did the White Rim Trail in May of last year, covering 105 miles in three days. Our process was really about getting used to going over a lot of challenging terrain, because I knew that’s exactly what I was going to see on the mountain. As I became more skilled and more proficient, I could also become more efficient.

JP: Now you’re a Hall of Famer who has been to the top of the world. What’s left for you?

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CW: Most of the goals I set now are for my foundation. The mission of the One Revolution Foundation is to gain equality for people with disabilities by eliminating obstacles, and one of the obstacles that we see a lot of is public perception, which is part of the reason I did the climb in the first place. There’s a sense of pity, as in, ‘Oh, it’s too bad what happened to you.’ What we’re trying to portray instead is that what happened to you is not nearly as significant as what you do with what happened. So my climb and the Hall of Fame thing, in a lot of ways, are just stepping stones to my ultimate goal and give me a little bit more legitimacy. People listen to me now, and they look at what I’ve done and see that there’s some substance there. But we’ve still not even remotely approached my ultimate goal at this point. These are just starting points, because we’re really about increasing a voice for people with disabilities.

by Josh Pate

Mount Kilimanjaro photos by Mike Stoner

Expedition Photographer and Videographer

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