Chris Waddell – High Roller
Chris Waddell Conquers Mountains and Misconceptions
Story By Ann Wycoff
Photos by Mike Stoner
“I am forcing you to rethink everything you know.” He smiles, his chameleon eyes shifting from brown to green in the afternoon light. “Because I’m in a wheelchair, people assume things as soon as they see me. My goal as a disabled athlete is to shock people and show them the impossible.” He’s no stranger to the task: Already the most decorated male skier in Paralympic history, Waddell set his sights on summiting Kilimanjaro, hand- cranking himself on a custom-designed cycle to the highest point in Africa.
It’s one of those sunny, blustery, blue- sky days in Park City, Utah. A local hero in his home of the past 10 years, Waddell is an athlete supreme in a town full of world-class athletes, acclaimed for his career as a gold medalist monoski racer and wheelchair racer. He’s also known as the founder of One Revolution, an organization that provides wheelchairs and related technologies to mobility-impaired people the world over.
This global mission began locally, in western Massachusetts on the slopes of the tiny Mount Tom. Waddell came by his love of skiing honestly; for the son of ski instructors, skis were a familiar appendage from the time he was 3.Y He raced throughout his teenage years, landing a spot on the ski team at Middlebury College in 1988. “I entered as a February freshman, so I had only done dry- land training with the team, no real competing. Over Christmas my sophomore year, I was skiing with some friends on Berkshire East, which has about a 900-foot vertical. On a warm-up run, I literally walked out of my ski. That’s really all I remember, other than it was an unusually warm day — like spring in the middle of December. I wasn’t even going that fast. I fell in the middle of the trail and slid.” He ended up with a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, and two shattered vertebrae. He would never walk again.
Waddell spent two months in the hospital recovering. But rather than crawling into a shell of self-pity, he decided to return to school as soon as possible. “I started spring semester a week late. Looking back I wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’” He was new to a wheelchair, navigating a campus on an ice-encrusted Vermont hill in the middle of February. “Honestly, it was a great transition because I attained a superman status. So much had been taken away, but I realized that I could still be the same person.”
School life had its challenges. He had dropped from a ﬁt 175 pounds to 125, initially had trouble staying awake past 8 p.m., and despite the school’s best efforts, the 200-year-old campus could be made only so wheelchair-friendly. But Middlebury’s then ski coach, Bart Bradford (a former North Eastern regional coach for the U.S. Ski Team), facilitated Waddell’s return to the snow, arranging for his ﬁrst monoski and asking him to continue as part of the team. “I trained daily and was soaking wet from falling all over the place,” Waddell says, laughing. He quickly excelled, though he recalls, “I was always taking risks and at times it was petrifying. But this chance to reclaim my athletic ability gave me pride in my body and restored my sense of self.”
After graduating — on his monoski— Waddell divided his time between Colorado and the East Coast, skiing competitively in winter and racing in a wheelchair in sum- mer. He spent 11 years on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, medaling 12 times. His triumphs brought attention. “Suddenly, I became an advocate for a group I’d had no desire to join. But when you win, a platform to represent a much bigger group appears.”
In 1999, Waddell came to Park City to prepare for the 2002 Paralympic Games in nearby Salt Lake City. He fell in love with the town and never left. Now he charges the mountain 40 days a year and also shreds regularly as an Olympic Athlete Ambassador with the First Tracks program at The Canyons Resort. For Todd Burnette, the resort’s vice president of marketing, who enlisted Waddell for the program, it creates a memorable experience. “People look over at Chris in his wheelchair and watch him change over to his monoski at the top of the gondola, wondering if he will be able to ski fast with them. I love to watch their faces as he takes off — he blows them away and none of the tourists can keep up. People forget he’s on a monoski — he becomes another person out there enjoying the mountain.”
He’s no less impressive off the snow: On May 18, 2009, he set a world record on Moab’s White Rim Trail, completing the 103-mile Southern Utah bicycle ride in less than three days on his hand cycle, shattering the previous six-day record. A winner everywhere he competes, he began asking himself the big questions: “‘Where am I going with my life? What’s next? How do I make a lasting impression?’ I wanted to ﬁnd a way to be able to say, ‘I am still relevant,’ to make a real contribution.”
Waddell had the Kilimanjaro epiphany one day while training. During a recent trip to Tibet for philanthropic work, he saw the magnanimous actions of a few dedicated in- dividuals. “My friends did cataract surgery in the villages, and profoundly changed 200 people’s lives in two days,” he exclaims.
He may have taken on Kilimanjaro as part of his One Revolution mission, but ultimately he has a bigger picture in mind. “The climb is the sexy part and the hook. But this entire project is an emort to introduce people to me and others like me, while also introducing people to themselves. If it’s just about me and the 600 million people with disabilities, then I am contributing to the sense of sepa ration. But if you can recognize yourself in me, we’ve made something happen.”
Sept. 24, 2009,Wadell and his team of eight began the ascent. Expedition guide Dave Penney, a former R&D guy for Black Diamond, worked with Waddell to create a specially designed four-wheel hand cycle called the Kubwa Bomba. Over the course of eight arduous days, Waddell used his arms alone to propel himself. Ropes and a custom- designed winch hoisted him up on sections where his thick-tired cycle couldn’t get traction. Steep pitches, slippery scree, and massive rocks provided hourly obstacles.
“The summit was way more difficult than I’d anticipated,” he admits. Two thousand feet from the top, a massive ﬁeld of boulders barricaded his way, so he had no choice but to be carried — though for a mere 100 feet — before he continued on his own.Y And once he reached the top, the experience was “just shocking. I was so deeply focused on what was in front of me that I really hadn’t looked around. Suddenly I was on top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world, wondering how I had gotten there.”
Beyond the blood, sweat, and tears of the trek itself, Waddell’s true triumph was in fulﬁlling One Revolution’s goal of giving the gift of mobility to people in another cor- ner of the world. It’s a mission he plans to continue with a marathon at the Great Wall of China at some point. “What a metaphor,” he says, laughing. “That wall is the deﬁnitive barrier and symbol of keeping people out.”
And it’s one more challenge for the ultimate competitor. “I think people can relate to me when I say, ‘I want to do this and it scares me to death but I am going to do it anyway.’ Making yourself vulnerable is nec- essary. You ﬁnd the balance point and push beyond it. It’s a metaphor for life.”