Chris Waddell speaks at The 24th Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner benefiting The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis on Oct. 6, 2009 in New York.
Chris Waddell is a seven-time Paralympian who has won 13 medals in both the summer and winter editions of the Paralympic Games.
But that is just one of his “Nametags” — or one of the hats he has worn during his career so far.
He is also the founder of One Revolution, which aims to change the perception of disability through education and storytelling (and the “Nametags” program). And he’s a motivational speaker, author, television producer, and winner of many awards and citations.
Now he can add U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame inductee to the list. (View the full class of 2019.)
When asked what the honor meant to him, Waddell took a deep breath.
“I’m still chewing on it in some ways,” he replied by phone from Park City, Utah, headquarters of One Revolution.
After more thought, he added, “It’s a ridiculous honor because the people who are in the hall of fame are the people who were my heroes when I was growing up, the people who I watched on television, and we were separated, there was that barrier of television. I feel as if I’m transporting myself through the television to this secret, well, it’s not a secret, but it sort of feels like it in some ways, this secret society.”
Daniel Pearl — Waddell’s childhood friend and board chair of One Revolution — was more succinct: “He’s deserving in every way. He’s a world-class individual, let alone an athlete. For the hall of fame, it’s more than just your ability as an athlete. It really speaks to your quality as an individual. There’s no one more deserving than Chris.”
Waddell’s life trajectory began on Dec. 20, 1988. It was the first day of Christmas break, and Waddell — a sophomore at Middlebury College — was skiing on his home hill in Massachusetts. His binding pre-released, and he fell hard, breaking two vertebrae, two ribs and his collarbone, suffering a concussion, and injuring his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
Pearl visited him in the hospital in Boston.
“I’ll never forget it because he looked at me and he just said, ‘I just need to figure out what I can do now,’” said Pearl. “That was the day after his accident.”
Waddell confesses that he was less enlightened and more scared. He was a skier, and without skiing, who was he? Could he still be successful? Also, many of his friends were on the Middlebury ski team, and he did not want to lose them.
With the support of his family and friends, he began to find his way. Two months after the accident, he was back at Middlebury. In August that year, he competed in his first road race. And he started skiing 362 days after the accident. Friends of the Middlebury ski team and his coach, Bart Bradford, had bought him a monoski. A few weeks later, he entered his first race and won – by 8 seconds.
Chris Waddell competing in the men's super-G, class LW10 sit-ski, during the Paralympic Games Salt Lake City 2002 on March 10, 2002 in Ogden, Utah.
Waddell was named to the U.S. Disabled Ski Team in 1991. His goal: to become the fastest monoskier in the world.
In the fall of that year, he was at an early-season training camp when, on the chairlift, the coach told him that he was not going to make the team for the Paralympic Winter Games Albertville 1992. The monoski classes were being combined, and Waddell had less muscle control below his sternum than other monoskiers on the team.
A coach’s words did not discourage Waddell. He made the 1992 Paralympic team and won his first of 12 Paralympic skiing medals — silver in both slalom and giant slalom. Before flying to Albertville, he also earned his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury and participated in the “Ski Down” at the college’s Snow Bowl — a tradition for mid-winter grads.
One of Waddell’s favorite Paralympic memories happened two years later at the Lillehammer 1994 Games. He swept the four alpine races — downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom — and met his goal. Across the monoski classes, Waddell had the fastest time of all.
“I beat everyone in the world that day, so that was a big one,” he said.
He competed in two more Paralympic Winter Games, successfully defending his downhill title in 1998 and winning six more medals. He also won three world championship titles in skiing.
Waddell also competed at the Paralympic Games in track and field. He was inspired by Jim Martinson, the founding father of adaptive skiing and a road racer as well. Martinson had won the 1981 Boston Marathon and went on to win medals in both summer and winter Paralympic Games.
In a downpour at the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000, Waddell won a silver medal in the 200-meter. He also won one world championship title on the track. He is part of an exclusive list of U.S. athletes to have won world championship titles in both summer and winter sports.
Waddell retired from competition after the Closing Ceremony of the Athens 2004 Games. He had retired from Paralympic skiing after the Salt Lake City 2002 Games (where he was honored to light the cauldron along with Muffy Davis, also a monoskier).
But Waddell found retirement hard.
“One of the difficult things was losing that platform, losing my voice, losing that sense of identity,” he said. “I went through the upheaval that most people go through in the hospital that I never did because I had a sense of purpose right away.”
Waddell founded One Revolution in 2008. He envisions a world where people with disabilities are seen for their potential instead of their limitations. The organization’s motto: “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens.”
Through One Revolution, Waddell has created a “Nametags” program that he has taken to over 900 schools. The program looks at the labels we give ourselves and others because these labels often become limitations. For his part, Waddell’s “Nametags” are to be fit, creative and productive.
To show the world that people do not need to set limitations, Waddell climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in September 2009 and made a documentary about the climb.
“In some ways, I feel like I want to spread doubt,” he explained. “I want people to doubt what they think they see. It’s seeing beyond the wheelchair, seeing the individual and forcing them to look at a situation through new eyes, to prepare society to see the individual as opposed to the perceived shortcoming. That’s what Kilimanjaro did.”
Since Kilimanjaro, Waddell has sought more ways to tell the story. He has written a children’s book — “Is It Lonely to be a Four-Leaf Clover?” He’s working on another children’s book, this one about his Kilimanjaro climb, and he is writing an online memoir, publishing it serially. He has also shot a reality TV pilot called “I Wish I Could,” where an expert with a disability teaches two people off the street an adventure. The goal is to flip the perception of disability.
Daniel Pearl uses a Jewish expression to sum up his friend.
“It’s Tikkun Olam, trying to repair the world, make it better,” said Pearl. “That’s the way Chris approaches things in his life. He’s not selfish, he’s selfless in many ways. He’s a mensch. It’s his character. He’s trying to make the world a better place.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.