This week’s conversation is with Chris Waddell, a Paralympian who is widely known as the most decorated mono skier in U.S. history.
Chris began ski racing at the age of six, and went on to ski competitively at Middlebury College – where an accident during a freshman year training session left him paralyzed from the waist down.
What happens for most of us, when we go through a life-altering event is that it reveals our internal operating system – one’s world-view, personal philosophy, and psychological skills. While Chris couldn’t use his body the same way – it revealed who he is.
Within a year, Chris was back on the mountain as a mono-skier and soon became the fastest in the world. He has gone on to compete in seven Paralympic games, earning 13 medals in alpine skiing and track & field, cementing his place as one of Team USA’s most successful two-sport athletes, and a Paralympic Hall of Famer.
As if that wasn’t enough, in 2009 Chris also became the first “nearly unassisted” paraplegic to summit the 19,340-foot Mt Kilimanjaro.
Chris is epic for so many reasons – he is an embodiment of resilience, purpose, passion, and having command of his mind.
After the conversation, there was nowhere for me to turn other than to re-examine how I’m living my life – am I really pouring into being the person I believe I’m capable of being?
I hope he does the same for you.
“It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.”
In This Episode:
Chris’ mindset before his accident
In the time leading up to it, I wanted to put myself in a really difficult situation to prove that I could handle it. I felt like as a ski race the hardest part is the start, is bringing all of your ability and all of your focus to the start of a ski race. It sounds like it should be relatively easy, but there are just so many distractions. And so in preparation for the season, I was going through dry land training and I felt like my goal was to push myself to the point that I wanted to quit. And I wanted to do that every day, because if I went just a little bit further, then I felt like I could be creating a new narrative.
What does he remember from the day of the accident?
I was just searching for that feeling, searching for that feeling of being in concert with my equipment, with my technique, with my fitness, all of that stuff. And my ski popped off in the middle of a turn, just really strange. And I don’t remember anything after my ski popping off, I was conscious, but I think I was in shock. So I don’t remember any of it, but sort of going back and talking to my brother, talking to some of my friends, it sounded like I really just fell on the middle of the trail and sort of slid to the side of the trail. I guess I told him, I didn’t think I hit a tree or anything like that. And so it’s kind of interesting in that it’s probably one of the most important times of my life, but at the same time, it’s a bit of a black hole as far as my memory’s concerned.
It’s hard to understand why this would happen
When something this profound happens to you, it’s almost like a karmic thing. It’s something that’s bigger than me and something that I can’t quite understand how I could go from being as able as I ever was to suddenly not being able to walk and whether there’s some reason for that and I’ve let go of trying to figure out necessarily what that is, but at the same time, yeah there’s a part of that, that is just like, okay was it the third [last] run? Was it exactly what you’re talking about? Just one more, let’s just get one more and it’s innocuous, it’s benign? Apparently not.
His first memory after falling
My memory is almost like a series of snapshots. The first memory was actually in the hospital. So ski patrol skied me down, an ambulance took me to the hospital and I was at Franklin County Medical Center. And my father, who was a teacher, came up from school. Somebody at the mountain had alerted him that there’d been a problem. He went up to the hospital. And so my first memory is my father looking down on me and my father, he wears glasses. He has a mustache. And so in my view, it was almost like a caricature kind of thing, but also with the mustache, it makes it easy to look like a frown. And so what I took out of that photo was that I was in trouble. And then that was the end of it.
Hearing his diagnosis, and changing the narrative
A doctor finally came out and he said, “Basically, your son, your brother’s broken his back and he’ll never walk again.” And the guy turned and left and sort of no bedside manner kind of thing. And so as a result of that message of which you say, okay, you’ll never walk again, but you also hear his life is over kind of thing. And so they actually wanted to help me create my own narrative around what was going on. They didn’t want to burden me with this sort of stigma and this belief of your life is over. And so I don’t remember anybody telling me, they told me that one of the nurses actually told me but I don’t remember that. I don’t remember. I broke thoracic 10 and 11. So I broke two vertebrae in my back, damaged the spinal cord, paralyzed effectively from the belly button down. But nobody gave me that after-school-special kind of moment of: You’ve broken your back, your life is over, you’ll never do this or that. And so I was really lucky, I think in that way that my parents gave me the opportunity to create my own narrative.
Is there anger? A chip on his shoulder?
When I’m honest with myself, it’s more of an existential kind of thing in that this is who I am. I didn’t have a chip, but at the same time, I didn’t really have time for people who wanted to put that limit on me because I didn’t need it. I didn’t need them to put any limit on me because I might believe it and I didn’t want to. This was about the existence of who I was and who I wanted to be as a person. Yeah, there was no chip. It was just I just have to come from my place of greatest being in order to be successful.
His mindset in the hospital, during recovery
It was forward thinking. It wasn’t permanent in my mind. I sat there. I couldn’t train. I was lying in the hospital bed, but I could do mental imagery. I was imagining myself skiing over and over as I’m lying in my hospital bed. I was thinking, “Okay, the first step is I get out of here and I go back to school.” Our race, the Middlebury Carnival, is the last race of the year. I thought, okay, I can get back for that. I won’t be able to race in it, but I’ll be able to fore-run. I’ll be a part of it… this is a temporary situation. I don’t know how to answer this question. The doctors don’t know how to answer this question. I have to find something more within me to be able to answer that question. That was the most interesting part for me, just because I think as a kid growing up, I always felt like I had a greater power than I was ever able to access.
In my mind I call it realizing possible. What ‘realizing possible’ is is winning that moment with myself, resisting the urge to panic, resisting the urge to rage, resisting that urge to just quit. It really was being able to say, “Yes, I know that that chemical thing is coming up within me, but my competitor is exactly that thing that is arising within me, that chemical response that I’ve listened to throughout my life, but I have to win that battle with that.” That’s where it’s like this intermediate little battle, and it might not materialize itself in any great gains or anything, but mentally it was winning the battle with myself, which is why I call it realizing possible. It’s kind of the idea that we have big goals, but we’ve got to win those little battles before we can get to the big thing.
Optimism is a controllable power source
This urge to quit. This urge to panic. This urge to rage is reminding me of how important this is and taking it and turning it in an opposite direction to say, yes, it is important. At the same time, my ability to maintain my sense of happiness, there wasn’t much I could do. I’m lying there in bed. All I could do was maintain a positive outlook. I could give my body, I could give my whole organism the opportunity, the best opportunity to heal. Really, yeah, that’s what this is – is taking it and using that energy, but also maintaining this optimistic outlook because I needed it. That was all I had. That was my only power.
The year before my accident, and I saw a woman named Diana Golden at a ski race, she was an above the knee amputee. She showed up at this race, which had a lot of national team members, at least one person who won a world cup afterwards, and there was this one-legged woman there. She really, to me, the first part was I thought, what’s she doing there? The second part was she was really what I thought was a great athlete in that she was like, “Look, I’m going to fall down and I’m going to get back up.” My wife hates this analogy, but I like it so I’m going to continue to use it. She was like Jason from Friday the 13th. She really was. You feel like that guy is always chasing you. You felt like you could kill him and that was it and then you were safe, but he kept coming back in each scene. That’s the way that she seemed to be, she was like, I’m going to keep going. You can’t stop me. Which to me is a great athlete. It’s also like the idea of talent versus grit in some ways are two opposing things. Sometimes you think, oh, well, I’m talented. This is it. But really talent with that grit, with what she had, is the best thing. I saw her and she was the most memorable person at that race. I wanted to be like her. It was something bigger than ski racing. It was bigger than ski racing in the sense that it was really, it spoke to what it meant to be a successful human being was this sense of, “Yeah, I’m going to keep going and I’m going to find a way to be successful.”
There are, what 1.2 billion people in the world with physical disabilities, 15% of the population. But, from the time we’re little, we’re taught not to stare at someone who looks different. It’s impolite to stare. The problem is if we never get a chance to ask questions, we never get a chance to get to know somebody who seemingly is different from us, they become invisible. And that is the ‘easy way.’. In some ways it was easy to feel like I was invisible, like I was part of a group that had just disappeared out of politeness in some ways.
What advice would he give to a young kid in a similar situation?
The objective is to find something you like, find something you love, find a willingness to put yourself in there because that’s how you change as a person. That’s how you grow. That’s how you’re willing to struggle. If you’re willing to struggle, then that really is the essence of being human. Find something you love, find a reason to struggle to make it happen, and you’re going to grow, and you’re going to be happier that way, regardless of the situation. That is the essence of being human.
It’s what you do with what happens to you
We’re not alone is something that’s really helpful. Even if the situation is completely overwhelming. But, knowing that things do happen, and that recovery is an important part of whatever happens. I told you, my motto is, “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” It really is. I think that’s where we demonstrate, who we are as people, is when something happens and that idea of finding that purpose and finding that meaning.
Change is the only guarantee in life
We as human beings sort of have two diametrically opposed desires. One, we want to be successful and two, we don’t really want to grow old. We think that successful is something that’s static. Once we get there, then we’re successful, then all life is good. And, we don’t recognize that the learning growing and dreaming part is the big part of not growing old is that we continue to change. We continue to evolve. Sometimes, that is really painful. It’s also often the thing that we look back on our lives and go, “That’s the thing that made the most sense. That was the greatest moment in my life.” I think we have to look at it and say, “Okay, life is not static. Life is fluid. It’s this consistent sense of change, and if we can find a way to embrace that sense of change and make it okay, and you go, all right, well, this is a bigger change than I expected, but okay, I didn’t sign up for it, but it’s time to move forward.”
His purpose and mission
My purpose is to connect people. My mission is to turn the perception of disability upside down, but I think it really is to connect people in the sense that the disability is the thing that stands in our way. How can I master myself to be able to live my life, live my dreams and perform at my best. That might be something that’s aspirational in some ways that maybe we never get to exactly our best. But at the same time as ski racers, we’re always talking about the search for the perfect turn and maybe you never get there, but it’s like wanting to get there. I think that really it’s turning that perception of what we consider disability upside down, but also telling the story so that people can see themselves in that journey.
The aspects (dials) of self-mastery
Number one is knowing that we have a choice in how we react. That’s a huge dial. That’s a really big one. I’m trying to think if there are other ones. But really, knowing that we have a choice is the biggest one for me. But then, I think that the mastery of self is also being bold enough, being crazy enough to have big goals, to set those big goals, to say, “This is what I want to do. I’m going to put myself all in and not only am I going to put myself all in, I’m actually going to tell other people that this is what I want to do.” I think we are our own easiest people to lie to. The other part of it is really being willing to accept incremental gains, to recognize that daily incremental gains are the things that end up becoming something big at some point. But recognizing the patience of, we’ve got to get a little bit better today. We’ve got to get a little bit better tomorrow. And if we get there, each day is building on itself. The other part of that, I think, in concert with that one is that we’re responsible for our own confidence.
Becoming your best self
The best is within us and we’ve got to find a way to tap into it. That’s almost like the power source of it, but it’s an accumulation of experiences as well. Experiences, accumulation of learning, an acquiring of skills that allows us to get to that point. That’s why I think that essentially as an athlete, you’re an artist. You’re hoping that you’re gaining an ability to, I want to say, to tell that performance in some ways. It is a performance. It’s a way of bringing this power of who you are, but an accumulation of skills and the ability to bring it together and to avoid in some ways that self-consciousness that oftentimes gets in our way, to find the purity of self and the combination of skills.
His nonprofit organization, One Revolution
Our mission is to turn perception of disability upside down. In doing that, we felt like the best audience was to go talk to kids. As you said, kids oftentimes will ask questions. They’re not bound by political correctness. They want an answer. And then they go, “Okay, that sounds good.” Where we, as adults, oftentimes are a little jaded and like, “Oh, that doesn’t really fit with the way that I look at life so you must be wrong.” And so our program’s called Nametags. It looks at the labels. It’s actually about getting beyond the labels that we put on ourselves and others, the limitations. Its resilience based motto is “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.”
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