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Downhill Racer Wins Uphill Battle after Paralysis

Dec. 10, 2018 — Chris Waddell was a ski racer for Middlebury College when his whole world changed in an instant. One ski popped off as he made a turn at Berkshire East, and in the fall, he broke two vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord. The accident left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. 

But Waddell lives by the motto, “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” And he’s achieved more than even he imagined possible since that 1988 accident, helping to turn people’s perceptions of disability upside down.

On Dec. 10, Waddell offered NMH students lessons in resilience and reaching success despite adversity. Stories from his personal journey from able-bodied athlete to the most successful paralympic ski racer in U.S. history provided inspiration and practical advice on how to handle the inevitable challenges life gives us all. 

“I’d always been taught I could do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t want to be told that now I couldn’t,” he recalled thinking shortly after the accident. “I wanted to prove to myself that I was a survivor, not a victim.”

With help from the medical world, family, and friends, Waddell fought his way back to health. At first, just dressing himself seemed impossible. Yet less than a year after the accident, Waddell had learned to monoski, and eventually he became world’s fastest. 

Today, he is the most decorated male mono-skier in history, with 13 Paralympic medals. He’s also a track athlete, winning nine World Championship medals and earning medals in both summer and winter Paralympic games. He was honored by the Dalai Lama as an “unsung hero of compassion.” And Skiing Magazine named him one of the “25 greatest skiers in North America.” 

Guiding him during this transformation were what he called the “4 Ss of resilience” — being a survivor, not a victim; seeing situations as challenging rather than overwhelming; finding support from others; and exploring many strategies to reach a goal.

A young girl once asked Waddell what had happened to his legs. He explained, and she replied, “That’s too bad.” But for Waddell, being paraplegic isn’t a tragedy. “If I’d never had my accident, I’d never have become the best in the world at anything,” he said.

After retiring as a professional athlete, Waddell used a hand-cycle to become the first nearly unassisted paraplegic to summit 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. The “nearly” was because he had to be carried 100 feet, over boulders that were larger than his cycling rig. When Waddell told one of his climbing companions that being carried made him feel like a failure, the friend reminded him, “Nobody climbs a mountain alone; everybody does it as part of a team.” 

In closing, Waddell asked the NMH community, “How often do we think something is impossible? And it is impossible, until somebody does it.”