Chris Waddell was home from college for winter break when he hit the slopes for what turned out to be a life-changing moment.
“Ski popped off in the middle of a turn, and that was it,” Waddell said. “I fell in the middle of the trail, and didn’t hit anything but the ground. Broke two vertebrae, a couple ribs, collar bone, that kind of stuff … concussion. So, I must have fallen pretty hard, but I don’t remember the fall.”
Waddell was paralyzed from the waist down. But chose to see the positive of the moment.
“I wouldn’t trade the accident for the experiences that I’ve had,” Waddell said during a memorable 2011 commencement speech at his alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont. “I wouldn’t trade walking for the person that I’ve become. It makes me wonder. Looking back at myself when I was in college my plans weren’t well formed, but I can tell you for a fact that they didn’t include any of what I’ve done.”
Waddell was back at Middlebury just two months after the accident. A year later he was skiing on a monoski. Two years after that, he was named to the U.S. Disabled Ski Team; he was a team member for 11 years and became the most decorated male skier in Paralympic history. All told, Waddell competed in four Winter Paralympic Games and won 12 medals, including a clean gold-medal sweep of the men’s downhill, slalom, giant slalom and Super-G at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Paralympic Games.
Additionally, Waddell competed in three Paralympic Games in track and field; he won a silver medal in the 200-meter race at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
Waddell was inducted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame and the Paralympic Hall of Fame. The Dalai Lama honored him as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion.” And in 2009, Waddell used a hand-cycle to become the first nearly-unassisted paraplegic to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.
“It’s not what happens to you,” Waddell often says. “It’s what you do with what happens to you.”