Chris Waddell competes in the Men's Super-G, class LW10 sit-ski, during the Salt Lake City Winter Paralympic Games at the Snowbasin Resort in Ogden, Utah.
Chris Waddell remembers getting to Albertville, France, for his very first Paralympic Games in 1992 and the “pep talk” the U.S. Para alpine team got from coach Jack Benedick.
“He said, ‘You’re going to win medals,’ and that was it,” Waddell recalled. “There was no gray area. It was black and white. You’re here to win medals. I was like, OK, the hardest part was getting here, now I can do what I’m supposed to do and go beat up these guys from the rest of the world because Jack told me I needed to. That was probably the most fun I ever had at a big event.”
Waddell took Benedick’s instruction to heart over the course of his long and decorated career. Not only did the Granby, Massachusetts, native compete in four Paralympic Winter Games in alpine skiing — winning five gold, five silver and two bronze medals — but he also added wheelchair racing to his repertoire and competed in three Summer Games from 1996 to 2004, winning a silver medal in 2000 in Sydney.
He remains the most decorated male monoskier in U.S. history, and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019.
Waddell’s historic run began in Albertville. He competed in both slalom and giant slalom at those Games, and leading up to the Paralympics his teammates had traditionally gotten the best of him on the slopes. Not on the big stage, though. Waddell won silver medals in both, coming in second only to Austrian Reinhold Sager.
He wanted more in Lillehammer.
“I said early on that I was going to be the fastest monoskier in the world and I said it out loud, which probably was not a good idea, but I did,” said Waddell, who was in his first year with the Middlebury College ski team in 1988, at the age of 20, when he fell during training, broke two vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord. “I was way cockier than I’d ever been in my life, but this was my personal mission and probably representative of my recovery was to get to be the fastest monoskier in the world and beat everyone.”
Waddell grew up ski racing, and slalom was his best event as an able-bodied skier. As a monoskier, giant slalom and super-G were his best, he said. Slalom still made sense, but it was taxing, especially back then before the technology to change the shape of the ski improved.
“It was a lot of work and it wasn’t pretty,” he said. “Skiing to me, in a lot of ways, is a sport that has an aesthetic and when you do it well it’s like ballet, but it’s also happening at speed over uneven terrain and it’s just this beautiful use of the human body and celebration of it. So yeah, slalom back then was most assuredly not beautiful.”
Still, it was better than downhill.
“Downhill scared me,” he said.
It was a long process, Waddell said, to get himself prepared to lay it all on the line in a downhill race. Once he did, it was exhilarating to let go and fly down the hill as fast as he could, but it was also his most challenging event.
And it was first on the slate in Lillehammer.
While Albertville was his first Paralympics, Lillehammer in 1994 became his most successful Games. That started right away with the downhill.
Waddell won, and getting that one out of the way meant he’d already realized his goal of proving he was the fastest in the world. His time was not only fastest, he said, but the fastest in raw, not factored, time.
But winning in the fastest discipline wasn’t the only goal Waddell had. He wanted to sweep all four.
The downhill was followed by super-G, giant slalom and then slalom, and he won them all.
“At that point there really wasn’t anyone in my class who should beat me,” he said. “It sounds like bragging, but that was the realistic part of it. I knew that the first goal was to prove I was the fastest and the second goal was to leave with four gold medals.”
Although his sweep of the disciplines in 1994 stands out as his most successful Games, his success didn’t end there. Waddell won gold in the downhill and silver in slalom and super-G in 1998, and finished his Winter Games career with a silver medal in the downhill and bronze medals in the giant slalom and slalom in Salt Lake City in 2002.
He was later inducted into both the Paralympic Hall of Fame and the National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, in addition to the recent U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall nod.
As happy as he was to prove he was the fastest monoskier in the world and sweep the four disciplines in Lillehammer, he said, the most enjoyable part of it was putting himself out there and finding his best.
“To me, if there was a statement I made in my skiing career, that statement was that it’s not all about the disability,” Waddell said. “It showed you can adapt to your sport, and obviously that metaphor works pretty well in terms of our regular lives as well.”