Parathlete inspires students

BRANDON — Chris Waddell knows all about challenges. He thrives on them. In fact, when life didn’t hand him enough of a challenge, he created his own.
Waddell was paralyzed from the waist down after a skiing accident on the first day on Christmas break from Middlebury College in 1988. He had been a promising member of the Middlebury College Ski Team, but all of that changed when his ski popped off and he fell, broke two vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord. He was 20 years old.
Waddell, now 48, spoke to a group of middle school students at Otter Valley Union High School recently, and talked about resiliency, facing challenges, and being themselves. It was all part of Waddell’s One Revolution Nametags Educational Program, which travels to schools all over the country using speakers discussing personal triumph stories to teach students tools in resilience.
“It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you,” Waddell told the kids at OV.
That is the program’s motto and message, and Waddell, seated in his wheel chair at the front of the OV auditorium, had the youngsters repeat it again and again.
Waddell is an expert on overcoming challenges. Two months after his accident, he returned to Middlebury College to finish his education. That same year, he learned to cruise down the slopes on a monoski. It allows paraplegics to ski seated over a single ski, with poles attached to small skis on each arm.
Always competitive, Waddell didn’t just learn to ski again as a paraplegic. He became the best monoskier in the world, winning 13 Paralympic medals over four games, and spending 11 years on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.
He spoke to the kids about the importance of taking risks, even when it was scary.
“The greatest risk you can take in school is to take no risk at all,” he said. “It’s so easy to follow the crowd, but if you follow the crowd, you’ll never figure out who you are.”
He said not being able to walk was the worst situation he could have imagined at the age of 20.
“It was like death,” Waddell said. “But I didn’t have the luxury of being frustrated, because I had to get better.”
His quick return to Middlebury College was the best thing for him, Waddell said, emphasizing the importance of having been a part of a team, whether it’s family, friends or a sports team.
“When I think back to when I went back to school, that was crazy,” he said. “But it’s what I needed to do because my friends were my team.”
Each OV student was handed a blank nametag when they entered the high school auditorium, and Waddell talked about the namesake idea behind his foundation.
“We all wear nametags in life,” he said. “Mine was ‘student’ and ‘skier,’ and then it was ‘paraplegic,’ ‘world champion’ and ‘superhero.’”
Waddell said overcoming his injury was just one challenge in his life. He said he worked so hard to be an inspiration to those around him that he was completely unprepared for the day he had to retire from competitive sports.
“It was harder to retire from competitive sports than it was to break my back,” he said. “But I was acting, I was playing a role because I had no idea where the role of superhero stopped and I started. I felt like I fell off a cliff. How can I figure out my power?”
So, in 2009, he decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet. Using a specially designed four-wheeled hand bike, Waddell pedaled up the mountain with a team of climbers in an attempt to become the first paraplegic to climb the mountain unassisted.
But when he reached a boulder field that was impassable with his bike, the team had to carry him 100 feet over the boulders, and then he continued on.
“To me, that meant I failed,” Waddell said. “I was so mad at my guide, Dave, for scoping out our route knowing I wouldn’t be able to get over those boulders. I blamed him. Do you know what he said? ‘Nobody climbs a mountain alone. Everyone climbs as part of a team.’”
Waddell then quoted Thomas Edison, who in trying to invent the electric light for many years, is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that it does not work.”
Then there is Hall of Fame hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who said, “You miss 100 percent to the shots you don’t take.”
Finally, as part of Waddell’s short film presentations, there is basketball great Michael Jordan, who was heard talking about all the times he failed, the number of games his team lost when he didn’t make the winning shot.
In closing, Waddell told the students to write down on their blank nametags how they want other people to see them, whether it’s “creative,” “smart,” “a leader,” “independent” or any other word they chose to aspire to be.
The point is to rise above yourself and your circumstances, Waddell said. After all, it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.
For more information about Chris Waddell and the One Revolution program, visit one-revolution.org, or chriswaddellspeaking.com.

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