It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.
Paralympic champion Chris Waddell, founder of One Revolution and Nametags, has lived by those words since a ski accident in 1988 left him paralyzed from the waist down.
And they’ve taken him atop the gold-medal podium and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
Waddell visited with Brunswick Lower and Middle Schoolers to share his story and to spread his message of resilience on Thursday, October 18.
After his accident, Waddell returned to Middlebury College just two months later. Within a year (362 days, to be exact), he returned to the slopes using a mono-ski. He would go on to become the most decorated Paralympian in history, winning 12 medals in mono-skiing and one in wheelchair racing.
But it was after Waddell — known as a “superhero” to almost all who crossed his path — retired from competitive racing that he faced his greatest challenge.
“It was harder for me to retire from competitive sport than it was to break my back,” he said. “My identity was more tied to being a superhero than it was to walking. I needed a find a way to be myself, to be honest, and to be vulnerable.”
He decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“If I could make it to the top of the highest place I could find, then people would have to see me for who I am — see beyond the wheelchair and see the hundreds of millions of people in world just like me,” he said.
He reached the summit — climbing all but 100 feet of the 19,341 unassisted.
Waddell armed his audience of young students and faculty with the 4 S’s of resilience when faced with adversity: Self, Situation, Support, and Strategy.
And he encouraged all to look beyond the labels (the nametags) that people often associate with one another — and to challenge the limitations they put on themselves and others.
“The greatest risk we run in school is taking no risk at all,” Waddell said. “If we spend all of our time making sure that we’re following the crowd — that we’re not going to look stupid alone — we run the risk of not knowing who we are.”