“It’s Not What Happens To You. It’s What You Do With What Happens to You”

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“It’s Not What Happens To You. It’s What You Do With What Happens to You”

The Paralympics was a whirlwind, I can’t believe they are already over! I could not be prouder of our U.S. Team and the success they had, having one of the strongest ever showings at the Winter Games. The team of 74 athletes won 36 medals and finished at the top of the overall medal count. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Paralympic legend, Chris Waddell. Chris is an American Paralympic sit-skier and wheelchair track athlete. He was a promising able-bodied skier while attending Middlebury College in Vermont before a skiing accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He returned to college just two months after the accident, started monoskiing in less than a year and was named to the U.S. Disabled Ski Team a little more than two years later. With 12 Paralympic medals, he became the most decorated male monoskier in history. Also a track athlete, he’s one of a handful to have won World Championships in both the winter and the summer. He competed in four Winter Paralympics winning 12 medals and three Summer Paralympics and a silver medal in the 200 meters in Sydney. In World Championship competition, Waddell won nine total medals. Waddell was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and the Paralympics Hall of Fame. The Dalai Lama honored him as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion.” In September of 2009, Waddell became the first nearly unassisted paraplegic to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. The film documenting his climb has won awards throughout the world. Chris has appeared on Dateline, Oprah and 20/20. He is the founder of the One Revolution Foundation and does his best to share the belief that, “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” This man has one of the strongest minds I have ever come across. He was kind enough to answer some questions below that will really help you or anyone you know feel motivated and unstoppable:


  1. How would you like to see the Paralympics develop? What will they be like in 10 -20 year’s time?
    • We have been really lucky that each Paralympic event has been a stepping stone to something that is greater. I think that must continue and the biggest thing is making it mainstream. It is great sport, great entertainment and a great representation in a lot of ways of the human struggle. This is why we watch sports, we want to see someone struggle and be successful coming out of it because there is ultimately something to learn. I hope it makes it to the mainstream and changes some of the narrative. That if you see someone in the street it’s not, “Oh, it’s too bad what happened to you.” It’s, “What do you do? How can we connect as oppose to how are we separate?” Sport is an amazing way of connecting people because it connects us with our passion. When we connect with our passion we realize we are talking about the same thing.
  2. What made you choose your sport?
    • I grew up in Western Massachusetts and there was a little ski area near us. I got captivated by it – I started ski racing when I was six years old – my father and mother instructed at the mountain. They would pick us up from school and we would drive 10 minutes to the mountain and be there sometimes until nine o’clock at night. As a six-year-old, I wanted to be like the thirteen year olds on the mountain who I thought were the coolest guys in the world.
  3. Who is your hero? Who has inspired you?
    • I seem to collect heroes everywhere I go. My biggest heroes were really my mother and father, they were tremendous examples. But, when I came into skiing, the year before my accident, one of the people I came across was Diana Golden. She was at an enabled body ski race and my first thought was what is she doing here? Then I thought she was the most amazing athlete I had ever seen. Because she was basically in a sport riddled with excuses, I was like look, I am going to fall and I’m going to get back up and keep going. And for me, those are the scariest athletes because you might be in front of them but you know they are coming and they are not going to quit. I wanted to be so much like her after seeing her that day and then after my accident I wanted to do for other people what she had done for me.
  4. How do you get a certain type of attitude across for someone living with or without a disability?
    • I believe that there are two different things that happen. For me, after my accident, everything really became black and white. I think in a lot of our everyday lives we can live in the grey area, but the black and white was that my accident was such a critical moment that I could potentially lose my life. I had to find a way to continue, to get better every single day. I think there is something to be said by that – in the grey area you can say you are mostly fine, and you just say, “Oh I’ll be better tomorrow,” but it was so critical that my mind had the ability to affect my ability to heal. I really had to be positive from then on and that was the power I could bring to my recovery. Now, I am trying to bring that same power to my everyday life. Sometimes we bring our best when we have to, but my greatest attribute now is my optimism. Everything is going wrong and I say, “You know what? I am not going to let it beat me, I am going to continue to be optimistic because it is going to give me the best opportunity to succeed.” I have a reminder on the screen saver of my phone that says, “Can I be optimistic?” And it is a way of approaching every day and I feel like people need a reminder to be committed. I want to be committed and that reminder for me makes me realize what it takes to really dig in.
  5.   What made you want to tackle summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro?
    • The most difficult thing that I did was retiring from competitive sport. It was more difficult for me to retire then it was to break my back. My identity was more tied to the success I had because in a lot of ways it made me not disabled, it made me just an athlete. After retiring, I didn’t know the image of who I was, where this sort of super image stopped and where I started. I couldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was an opportunity for me to regain the platform that I had as an athlete and people understand that we are all climbing a mountain on some level. So, for me to climb a mountain in a way that was very physical and difficult, they understand and appreciate that struggle. We also had to tell the story. When I was competing in the Paralympics we weren’t even on television. So, I had to tell the story of that struggle to bring people there and give them a way to see me as an individual, beyond the wheelchair. So that is why I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro for both myself and so many other people.
  6. What advice would you give to someone who just experienced an injury or diagnosis that will forever impact their mobility.
    • The biggest thing for me is finding something to be passionate about. Find a reason to get better. That might be for your children, for your spouse or so many other things. We need a reason to get better and wake up in the morning and say I am going to do this and realize that my success is a product of the sacrifices and pain that I have been willing to endure along the way to get there. It is about having a goal that is bigger than us ourselves.

1 Comment

  1. Sheila Nee says:

    Hello~ Thanks for sharing this interview between Jim and Chris Waddell.
    I had the honor of hearing Chris speak at the first sports tourism tradeshow I attended promoting Maine as a sports destination in 2009. Chris and I made a great connection there and have stayed in touch ever since. Chris is on my select, short list of heroes. Jim and I knew one another when I was with Ocean Spray in 1988 just before my move to Portland, Maine. My love for the Boston teams and Foxboro roots led me to my role with the Maine Sports Commission. Hello to Jim from me… It’s been a long time.