Chris Waddell was a star varsity skier on his way to becoming a Division One All-American when he first came across Diana Golden at a college race. She had lost one of her legs to cancer, but she still hit the slopes and competed with everyone else.
“I remember watching her and thinking, 'Wow, what is she doing here?'” Chris told the Huffington Post. “But then we all saw her race and were just blown away. Her competition seemed so much bigger than mine.”
One year later, when a skiing accident left Chris paralyzed from the waist down, he couldn’t help but recall Diana (who died of cancer in 2001) and the relentless passion she had for the sport, despite her disability.
"She kept going, which is really the greatest compliment you can pay to an athlete," Chris said. "You don't stop."
After only a few months of rehab, Chris strapped into a wheelchair and began road racing with other paraplegics. And shortly after that, Chris was back on the slopes aboard a brand new “monoski" –- essentially a molded seat atop a steel frame with a shock absorber –- donated to him by Middlebury College alumni.
He spent endless hours training with his new equipment, and in 1990 he masterminded what Skiing Magazine dubbed “The Turn,” a move that had never been completed before. “A single audacious arc proved what coaches had only begun to think possible: monoskis could carve,” the article raved.
Chris became a spokesman for disabled skiers around the world, spearheading an instructional video, “Perfect Turn,” and co-founding a monoski school in Vail.
In 1992, Chris was in Albertville, France, for the 1992 Paralympic Games, where he picked up two silver medals for the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. Over the next ten years, Chris won a total of twelve Paralympic medals, including five golds, in the winter and summer games (in the summer, Chris does track and field), becoming the most decorated male skier in Paralympic history. Both Outside Magazine and Skiing Magazine referred to him as one of the greatest skiers in North America.
All the while, he continued to travel the globe, talking to others about his unique situation. “What speaking allowed me to do was give me an opportunity to change people’s minds,” he said. “To change the way the world sees people with disabilities.”
With his non-profit, One Revolution, Chris does just that, traversing boundaries for the disabled and spreading his universal message worldwide.
In 2009, he became the first paraplegic to summit the 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, using upper-body strength alone to climb the treacherous terrain in a custom-designed “handcycle" as hundreds of other climbers looked on in shocked amazement. Porters assisted Chris during the rockier patches, placing flat boards on the ground to even out Chris’ trajectory.
Did he ever think he wouldn’t make it? “I guess that was never an option,” Chris said. “I’d gone there to get to the top.”
A documentary film about Chris’ climb, also titled “One Revolution,” has been playing the festival circuit, winning awards at festivals in Geneva and Memphis. In late June, he’ll head to Puerto Rico to screen the film there.
Chris hopes to continue defying boundaries and eschewing easy labels. And with his "Nametags" program, which he presents at schools across the country, he encourages other young people to do the same.
The program's mantra? "It's not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you."
“People say all the time to me, ‘Hey, you’re better on one ski than I am on two!’ And I’m like, 'I know!'” Chris laughs. “It shouldn’t be this huge surprise or revelation. I’ve skied more during summers than you might have skied ever in your life. It’s not a product of some superhuman thing. It’s about putting your time in. Making something happen.”
Watch the trailer for "One Revolution" below.