Chris Waddell competes at the Salt Lake City Paralympic Games in 2002. (Photo: Team USA)
It’s been 20 years since alpine skier Chris Waddell last competed as a Winter Paralympian. But the emotions and memories of the Paralympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 will forever be etched in his mind.
This year’s Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing took place at a unique time. Waddell, A seven-time Paralympian who earned 13 medals in alpine skiing and track and field, remembers a similar situation during the Salt Lake City Games, albeit under different circumstances.
Those Games — which began 20 years ago on March 7 — were held just a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Waddell believes having the event on American soil played a major role in the healing process.
“As someone who had the opportunity to wear the red, white and blue, to have USA on my back, we really brought that feeling of, ‘We’re not a desperate group of individuals; we really are a team,’” said Waddell, who worked on NBC as a commentator during the Beijing Paralympic Games. “I think it was for the athletes, and it was also for other people including first responders who were running toward the fires and explosions.”
Waddell attended Middlebury College in Vermont, where he competed on the ski team. During Christmas break in 1988, he was out skiing near his Massachusetts home when his binding pre-released, causing him to fall and break two vertebrae, two ribs and his collarbone. He also suffered a concussion and damaged his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Despite the accident, Waddell returned for the spring semester at Middlebury in a wheelchair. What ultimately got him through recovery was the unwavering support of his teammates and coaches on the ski team. The next fall, they purchased a monoski and asked him to rejoin the squad.
“That was about a $2,500 item at the time,” Waddell said. “That was one of the greatest things anyone could have done for me.”
Waddell continued to train with the team, although he chuckles when referring to himself as “a ridiculous liability.” He competed in his first Winter Paralympics at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, capturing silver medals in slalom and giant slalom. He added four gold medals at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, along with a gold and two silvers at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
Meanwhile, Waddell also set his sights on the track, and success came as quickly as his skiing exploits. After making his Summer Games debut in 1996 in Atlanta, he won silver in the 200-meter at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Two years later, Waddell closed out his Winter Paralympics career in Salt Lake City. He was tabbed with the honor of lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony, along with fellow monoskier Muffy Davis, then went out strong on his monoski, adding a silver and two bronze medals to his collection. After one more Summer Games in 2004, he retired from Paralympic competition.
Waddell had moved to Park City, Utah, in 1999 for the sole purpose of being part of the Games. He still resides there all these years later.
“Moving here, I thought it was toward the end of my career and that I would leave,” he recalled with a laugh. “Now I’ve been here 23 years. It’s a time for reflection, but it’s also different in that I’m in the area where the Games were hosted with a lot of people who continue to celebrate the Games.”
Waddell, who was inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019, sits on the board of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. He also serves on the committee that is hoping to bring the Games back to Salt Lake City in either 2030 or 2034. He’s proud of the fact the excitement of the Salt Lake City Games still exists 20 years later.
“It’s cool to see how passionate people continue to be about the Games, and how much people want them here,” he said. “It’s part of our culture.”
The 2002 Games also highlighted the increased popularity of the Paralympics. Waddell remembers attending the sled hockey gold-medal game, where the U.S. beat Norway in a shootout to claim its first gold medal in the sport.
“It was packed,” Waddell recalled. “People were in the parking lot trying to scalp tickets. I’m like, ‘How cool is this?’”
Retirement from competition hasn’t slowed Waddell down. He’s an author, motivational speaker, television producer and founder of One Revolution, an organization devoted to changing the perception of disabilities through education. At the Beijing Paralympics, he provided analysis during alpine events along with the opening and closing ceremonies.
NBC hosted over 230 hours of coverage across its family of networks and streaming platforms. Waddell points to the strong in-house support of the network along with providing a quality product as the reasons for continued growth.
“It’s good sport, it’s good entertainment and we’ve had good numbers,” he said. “That’s the driving factor. We have to continue to produce a product that the general public will embrace.”