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The Work is Never Done for Paralympic Hall of Famer Chris Waddell

By Joshua Clayton | July 23, 2020, 12:42 p.m. (ET)

Chris Waddell on his way to second place in the LW10 class of the mens downhill during the Salt Lake City Winter Paralympic Games at the Snowbasin ski area in Ogden, Utah.

Chris Waddell is never satisfied. 

When he recovered from a ski racing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down in college, he was determined to become a Paralympian.  

When he became one of the most decorated monoskiers in U.S. history, winning five gold and three silver Paralympic medals in 1992, 1994 and 1998, he made the move to the Summer Games to win silver in the Men’s 200-meter in Sydney in 2000. He’d return to the slopes in 2002 to win a silver and two bronze medals in the Salt Lake Paralympics, for good measure. 

When he retired from Paralympic competition, he wasn’t ready to stop moving, so he simply decided to use a handcycle to become the first person with paraplegia to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

He’s working to prove to himself and everyone else that the limitations placed on him by society aren’t what they seem. 

“From the time we're little, we're taught not to stare at someone who looks different,” he said. “And if you don't get a chance to stare, you don't get a chance to ask questions. Like one seventh of people are effectively invisible, but I can stretch people's imagination. 

“I think that what we can do is hopefully tweak people's perspective a little bit so that they see the next person on the street and it's not, ‘Oh, that's too bad. What happened to you?’ It's like ‘Do you race wheelchairs?’” 

Waddell was home from Middlebury College on Christmas vacation training as an able-bodied ski racer, when his ski detached in the middle of a trail, resulting in two broken vertebrae. His only goal was to get back to competing after two months in the hospital. 

“In some ways it was like the end of my youth, right?” he said. “It's like, I was good enough to know that I wasn't great, but I wanted to be great at something in my life. I needed to prove to myself that if I committed to something.” 

Waddell said the accident forced him to make change in his own life. 

“I think that that suddenly being in a wheelchair, I became an advocate for a group I had no desire to join, but none of my friends knew anybody in a wheelchair. So, I had to educate them,” he said. “I didn't want to be totally separate from the group. So, I had to, I had to educate them, even if I didn't feel like talking.” 

We want the world to see us for who we are.

Even as he reached Paralympic glory, Waddell said he didn’t feel he was doing enough to educate those who had never seen athletes with disabilities perform. The Paralympic games weren’t covered on television, so athletes didn't have the same platform as they do today.  “It's getting much, much better now, but back then, it really wasn't mainstream. So, you could be the best in the world at what you did, and nobody knew it. You didn't have a platform to affect any change. And I felt like in climbing Kilimanjaro, I still wanted that platform. 

“I felt like I could tell that story. And if I told that story, then that maybe it could affect the people who didn't have as much of a voice. There's a responsibility in having been successful in what I did athletically and having some visibility.” Now the Paralympic Hall of Famer is using that visibility and platform to continue what has become his life’s work: changing the perception of disability through his One Revolution foundation. But even with all the success, the work is never finished.

“If the goal is to change that conversation, you're never done,” he said. “Our limitations are so personal and it's really easy to project that on other people. I would never be able to do that if I were in your situation, so it's hard to see somebody else. it's an ongoing thing, but I think that's a human thing as well.

“We want the world to see us for who we are.” 

Joshua Clayton