Chris Waddel is reaching new heights

Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is an extraordinary feat.

Doing it without the use of legs is unheard of.

Yet it’s the kind of challenge Chris Waddell, who became the first paraplegic to ascend the legendary mountain in 2009, seems to relish. Waddell, a 47-year-old author, athlete, adventurer and TV personality, tours as a motivational speaker to help spread the word about turning the perceptions of disability upside-down.

“My mission is to tweak your perspective just a little bit so that you see your world differently, thereby allowing you to be more productive, more efficient and more purposeful and happier,” Waddell says of his mission.

It’s a charge that’s led him around the world – and up the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Courtesy photo

Also a track athlete, Waddell took the silver medal in the 200 meters in the Sydney Summer Paralympics.

Waddell, who grew up for a time in Rindge, was a promising young skier at Middlebury College in Vermont in 1988 when an accident at Berkshire East Ski Area left him paralyzed from the waist down. A ski popped off in the middle of a turn during a practice run, and in the ensuing fall he broke two vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord.

“I had no idea how he’d react [initially,]” his brother, Matt Waddell said. “He’d had injuries before — a torn ACL, broken ankle — but there is a short playbook for those recoveries. I wasn’t aware of any short recovery playbooks for severe spinal injuries, so I had no idea what to expect. But it became pretty clear early on that he wanted to get right back to his life. That then became the expectation that he’d push right ahead, get back to school, have a friend give him a piggy-back ride to a class on the third floor that had no elevator, get back on skis, going back out on the tiny mountain in western Massachusetts where we first learned to ski.”

According to Waddell family lore, Chris was all-but born on skis. He was gifted his first pair at birth, and taught himself to ski on small hills until he took to the slopes in Sunapee, first, and then around the region. He showed a strong, competitive drive from a young age – a trait that very likely served him well when adversity reared its head.

“If there was something to climb on, he’d climb on it and want to go higher,” his mother, Nancy Waddell said of Chris as a youngster. “When he first skied on a lift with the racing team – he might’ve been five in his Sears Toughskin jeans and hand-me-down skis – he killed himself to keep up with older kids. That’s just how he was. If someone could do a back flip on a diving board, he had to figure out how to do it. His brother was just the same. They egged each other on the whole time. The trees in our backyard became slalom gates.”

The accident that left Waddell without the use of his legs at just 20-years-old may have ended the dreams of some athletes. But then, Waddell is no ordinary athlete.

“He was still in the hospital, flat on his back with a million tubes coming out of him, and he said to me, ‘mom, can you write out the check so I can do my semester abroad?’” Nancy Waddell said, laughing at the recollection. “It didn’t really surprise me, but I was trying not to be a nervous mother. He did go back to college without missing a semester. He told me: ‘I’m not going to sit home and play Nintendo.’ He wanted to be with his friends in the middle of winter in Vermont.”

His brother said Chris’s natural athletic ability — and that ever-present competitive drive — likely played a role in his determination to get back to living his life the way he wanted.

“He was always naturally athletic and picked sports up quickly,” Matt Waddell said. “There was a diving board at the pool we went to and he was the best diver. He could score on a bicycle kick in soccer. You never know when somebody’s world changes that dramatically, but, no, it didn’t surprise me that he was able to quickly pick it up and excel.”

When news arrived that Chris had been in an accident, his father, James Waddell, began to wonder what it would mean for his son’s future. He said that as a child, Chris could achieve whatever he wanted, and often worked diligently until he achieved those goals. It was a trait that remained a prominent part of his recovery.

“After the initial shock of the accident wore off, I did believe that Chris would not dwell on his disability, but that he would begin to explore what he could do and continue to expand possibilities,” James said. “His goal right after the accident was to return to college by the second semester and to find a way to ski.”

Waddell was back in school after just two months, and within two years he had been named to the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. It was just the beginning of a remarkable stretch that saw Waddell amass a diverse list of achievements. He went on to become the most decorated male skier in Paralympic history, winning 12 medals over four games in 11 years. Also a track athlete, he took the silver medal in the 200 meters in the Sydney Summer Paralympics. He was also named an “Unsung Hero of Compassion” by the Dalai Lama, and one of the “25 Greatest Skiers in North America” by Skiing Magazine. In 2010, he was inducted into both the Paralympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. As if that wasn’t enough, Waddell was named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.”

Then there was the small task of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet.

“I think I said to him, ‘how are you going to do that?’” Nancy Waddell said. “Of course, he had done his homework and had it all figured out.”

To start with, anyway. Chris gathered a team that included several Middlebury friends – one of whom is an orthopedic doctor – and embarked on a scouting mission. The exploratory trip revealed that the attempt was going to necessitate some additional work on his climbing vehicle – a four-wheeled hand cycle that allowed Waddell to power himself up the long, arduous path. With some needed tweaks to the vehicle, Chris and his team mounted the attempt, and in 2009 they traveled to Tanzania and reached the Roof of Africa.

The climb was captured on film and was made into a documentary called “One Revolution.” Directed by Amanda Stoddard, it shows the challenges Waddell faced during the grueling climb, and features an intimate look at his determination to complete the seemingly insurmountable task. (Visit to watch a trailer of the film.)

“His purpose was that most people couldn’t relate to skiing as a vehicle to change their perspective of disabilities,” Nancy Waddell said. “But climbing a mountain – maybe more people could relate to that, and that’s when he decided to do it.”

Matt Waddell said his brother wanted to do as much as he could without limitations. As a result, most of the physical rehabilitation work became his own responsibility – but he’s also always had a great support team of friends, coaches, school administrators and family that have said, “Ok let’s see what we can do to make it happen. Don’t let obstacles deter you and you may need help where you didn’t before.”

“When someone is facing a life-changing event, it takes a while to deal with the reality that life will be different,” James said. “After the initial shock it is important to take control of the situation. Don’t allow others to direct your rehab. Be proactive, research the availability of resources, reach out to others who have had the same experience and don’t accept no for answers to your questions. Attempt to keep a positive attitude. There will be failures and disappointments but there will also be many accomplishments. The victim and their family are in charge of their own destiny.”

Nancy Waddell said that the support system was key, but Chris’s own attributes have helped him attain success through the ensuing years.

“I think his best achievement is how he’s willing to reach out to people and make fun of himself to make someone else feel better,” Nancy said. “He’s very self-deprecating. He’s willing to make fun of himself, but he’s also willing to learn to do things differently. It shows people that he’s not perfect.

“He likes to take a chance at doing different things, and if people don’t like it, that’s up to them. That’s his nature and always has been.”

Bill Burke is the managing editor for custom publications at McLean Communications in Manchester. He is also a columnist for Parenting NH Magazine.

More about One Revolution

Chris Waddell started the nonprofit organization One Revolution because he wanted to change the perceptions of people with disabilities, as well as inspire people to accomplish amazing things despite having challenges. One Revolution created several programs with this in mind.

Nametags empowers students by letting them know that they can choose the figurative nametags they wear. 

The program discusses the four S’s of resilience:

• Self: Are you a victim or a survivor?

• Situation: Is your situation overwhelming or simply challenging?

• Support: Become a part of a team.

• Strategies: One of the many ways you can accomplish your goals.

Another program, storytelling clinics, helps individuals understand how storytelling impacts the way people view disabilities and inspires others to move forward and accomplish great things.

One Revolution holds screenings of the documentary of the same title.  The film shows Chris’s personal history and what motivated him to climb the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro and beyond. A question-and-answer session follows the film.

Upside Down Grants is a funding program for student filmmakers with disabilities to enable them tell their stories and “Turn the perception of disabilities upside down.”

For more information about One Revolution or any of the above programs, go to www.onerevolution-org.

— Jesse D. Estes

Categories: Real Stories