Paralympic Athlete Shares the Power of Resilience with Derby Academy Students

Chris Waddell speaks to students on Friday, January 10, 2020.
Chris Waddell speaks to students on Friday, January 10, 2020.

Photos courtesy of Derby Academy

It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.

That was the message Paralympic athlete Chris Waddell stressed to Derby students as he spoke in Larson Hall at Derby Academy on Friday, January 10.

As a ski racer at Middlebury College in 1988, Waddell became paralyzed from the waist down after a ski popped off in the middle of a turn. He fell, breaking two vertebrae and damaging his spinal cord in the accident.

Waddell’s decision was to become a survivor, not a victim.

Just two months later, bound to a wheelchair, he returned to college and started mono skiing in less than a year. A little more than two years later, Waddell was named to the US Disabled Ski Team.

“Breaking my back, parazing myself, in a lot of ways, was the closest to death I’ve ever come. It took so much of who I was, but this was also the most powerful that I’ve ever been – because I had to get better. In a lot of ways, it was the question of ‘how can I be healthy?’ Sometimes the answer to that was in just continuing to believe when the situation was difficult ...I didn’t quit.”

Waddell’s story of determination and resilience is part of One Revolution’s Nametags program; a group of Paralympic athletes who draw on their stories of success in the face of adversity. Derby students were asked to think of the questions we ask ourselves when things go wrong, examine the limitations we put on ourselves, and define the goals we want to pursue and the people we want to become.

“If I’d never had my accident, I wouldn’t have been the best in the world at anything,” Waddell said, adding that people are quick to see only the challenges and tragedies behind accidents and not the strategies.

“We have the ability to change our name tags, our limitations.”

Since his accident, Waddell’s journey has led him to become an acclaimed motivational speaker and accomplished athlete. He’s the most decorated male mono skier in history with 12 Paralympic medals. As a track athlete, he’s one of the few to have won World Championships in both the winter and the summer. He’s competed in four Winter Paralympics and won 12 medals, and in three Summer Paralympics, winning a silver medal in the 200 meters in Sydney.

Waddell was inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and the Paralympics Hall of Fame. The Dalai Lama even honored him as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion.”

But despite all of his accomplishments, the accolades he received began to create a label for himself.

“I spent all of my time feeling like I was playing a role that I thought other people expected of me,“ Waddell said.”It didn’t allow me to be honest or vulnerable. The only way to get out of that hole was to create a goal that was bigger than me.”

Chris Waddell speaks to students on Friday, January 10, 2020.

In September of 2009 Waddell became the first nearly unassisted paraplegic to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro – the tallest mountain in Africa.

“I thought that if I could get to the top of the tallest place I could find, people would have to see me. I thought that people would see beyond the wheelchair, see me, and see the hundreds of millions of people in the world like me, who are invisible because from the time we’re little, we are taught not to look at someone who looks different.”

On his summit, a setback required him to receive assistance, but “no one climbs a mountain alone,” he reminded students.

“How often do we say that something is ‘impossible’ and it’s entirely true?” Waddell asked. “Until somebody does it. If somebody is going to do it, why not us?"

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