DH: Hey guys. Welcome to keep on pushing radio, I am your host Devon Harris and as always you know what we do here. Our goal is to share with your ideas and insights that are going to challenge and inspire you to live your absolute best life. So, if that’s something you’re interested in, you’re definitely in the right place man so welcome!
Our guest today is an amazing individual, he is one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet. So much so that People magazine described him as one of their 50 Most Beautiful People. I mean who gets that kind of accolade man? This guy’s beautiful inside and out and he has a long list of accomplishment just so he can show off on the rest of us, right! Thirteen Winter Paralympic medals, in fact, he is the most successful, most decorated mono skier in Paralympic history. And if that wasn’t enough, he added a silver medal in the T53 class in the 200 meters at a summer Paralympic games.
He has competed in 7 Paralympic Games, by the way, 3 Summer and 4 Winter. And with that kind of performance and success, you know he’s a hall-of-fame. He was inducted in the Paralympic Hall of Fame; he is a giving guy as well, so he has founded the One Revolution Foundation. He describes himself as the first nearly unassisted paraplegia to climb Mount Everest, I’m taking some issues with that. We’ll discuss that later on, but he got to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I mean, I can’t even easily climb my stairs and this guy’s climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair. He’s also an author, he has authored the book, ” Things I Want to Remember Not to Forget” and has also taught himself to draw and has Illustrated his first children’s book, “Is it lonely to be a four-leaf clover?
An amazing guy and I’m so looking forward to chatting with him. So, it’s my honor, it’s my pleasure to welcome to Keep On pushing Mr. Chris Waddle. Chris, welcome to the show brother.
CW: Thank you, Devon, so nice to join you.
DH: Yes, it’s great to see you again. Let’s go back a few months ago, Chris. We were in Buenos Aires, Argentina attending an IOC forum. We’re at the hotel and this bus rolled up to take us over the registration area and of course, it doesn’t have a lift for someone in a wheelchair. The rest of us are like, “Oh my God we need to help this guy!” and we are all offering help because at the time we didn’t know you were a badass. We didn’t know you had climb mountains and you are like, “no, no, I got this,” and of course you got yourself up in into the bus. So, I have a two-part question for you. I know you’re working to change the perception that people have of individuals with some form of disability and so, how does it feel when someone feel that they should, they ought to offer you some help when you know within yourself that you are more than capable of handling the situation and two, what advice would you give to someone like myself because I was one of the guys offering help, what advice would you give to someone who has really good intentions, but haven’t spent enough time around people with disabilities to know how to really behave so to speak?
CW: I think funny enough one of the greatest gifts that we can give to people is the opportunity to help us, is asking for help which is really hard for all of us because we’re supposed to be so strong and capable and individualistic……independent and that we’re not going to need any help but I think that can be a great gift. One of the things that I recommend for people is that if they want to help that they also realize that “No thank you” is a perfectly valid answer. I get this where you know, like if I’m at the supermarket and somebody wants to help me with my chair, you know.
Hey, can I put your chair in the back? Well, first of all if you put my chair in the back then when I get there, then I’m going to get out and I’ve got to crawl around to go get it in the back and in some ways it sounds awful, but it’s it takes me more time to tell them how they can help me than it does for me to do it myself.
I think that there’s just a give-and-take because really, we do want to connect to people. If somebody says, “hey, can I help you out? That’s one of the most generous things that you can do and for me in some ways saying “Yeah help me out”, that’s one of the greatest gifts that I can give so we don’t want to change that but at the same time, we want to allow people to be in charge of their own lives, too.
DH: Yes, that that makes a lot of sense because even for us able-bodied persons, every now and again someone will offer help. You’re on a plane for example, and there is a shorter person trying to put their luggage in the overhead bin and you go, “I’ll help you – or a woman and she goes, “No, no, I’m fine.” And you’re right, I think we are able to more easily accept a “no” from a person who is able-bodied but maybe short or a woman versus a guy in a wheelchair. “What do you mean you don’t need help, you’re in a wheelchair?” But you’re right, it’s perfectly okay to hear “no” and be able to respect that the person is just fine so, thanks for that. By the way, how are you doing with your quest to change perception?
CW: I think the quest to change the perception of disability is ongoing, obviously. It’s why I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The picture of someone in a wheelchair doesn’t fit with the picture of someone on the top of a 19,000-foot Mountain. But it’s an ongoing thing and I think disability in a lot of ways is an unchallenged bias or an unchallenged prejudice. People have their beliefs and those beliefs never get challenged then they don’t have to revisit those beliefs and I think that it is our responsibility on a fairly regular basis to try to challenge those beliefs.
DH: Again, I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. Whether it’s a physical disability that leaves you in a wheelchair are maybe it’s ethnic differences or racial differences, religious differences, people tend to be very uncomfortable where the difference is that they see outwardly. And you’re right, those of us who are quote-unquote different have to behave in a way that’s going to challenge the norm, the static scope. So, you for example, after your accident you felt that others saw you differently and you wanted to change that. How did you get past that and is that something that you’re still working on ….. I suppose you are?
CW: I’m always still working on it and in the beginning, I felt like I was an educator and I think that that continues to this day. I went back to college two months after my accident and my friends knew that there were people in wheelchairs, but they hadn’t had a peer necessarily who is in a wheelchair. And so, the questions got, “can I push you up this hill, can I carry your tray in the dining hall and open the door, what’s the best way to do this? In a lot of ways, I was trying to figure out what the best way is to do it because I didn’t know anything. But there’s a real responsibility to educate and there’s a responsibility for me in a lot of ways, having been relatively successful and in the public eye, to help those people who might have a more difficult time with it.
To help people to be able to see the individual and to say, “Hey, can I give you a hand with that or can I do this as opposed to – you talk about the airport? I get people at the airport who sometimes come up behind me and start pushing me and I’m like, “Hey, what are you doing?
DH: Without even asking.
CW: First of all, you need to ask me if you’re going to do that and don’t just make the assumption. But I think that that’s part of it and part of what we can do in the Sports Arena, on television these kinds of things is to create a non and unintimidating kind of environment where people can see somebody with a disability and see them perform and go, “Oh, okay. Maybe you’re really good at that” and then that’s okay and I think that that’s a lot of what we have to look at.
DH: You made an interesting point though about going back to school and having your friends asking you… and it seems like it was a learning curve that you being a new paraplegic and them never having a friend or someone close to them who was a paraplegic trying to figure out how to behave. Trying to figure out what it is that you can or cannot do, what your limitations are and them obviously caring for you wanting to help as well. So, you’re working to change perception and as much as you’re doing that and I would argue that all of us have some kind of disability not necessarily in the way that you understand the term disabilities.
Some of us are mentally, emotionally, maybe financially disabled or maybe they’re liabilities. That’s another conversation, but as you work to help people change those life disabilities wouldn’t you agree that a lot of that perception and the changing of that perception starts with us?
CW: I think it starts exactly with us. I think that often times we are unwilling to address a lot of our personal limitations and even people with disability a lot of them that will not self-identify as being disabled. And so, I think that part of it is a human being we don’t want to seem like we’re not as powerful and able. And I think some of it is being honest with ourselves and by being honest with ourselves and makes it easier in a lot of ways to be honest with other people. And we see them, “Oh, I totally understand that,” and it’s not this, “Oh, I’m admitting that I’m weak’ it really is that I am admitting that I’m human and I’m fallible and “Hey, guess what? That’s something that we share.
DH: Yes. You’re absolutely right. I think one, it’s the perception and the change of the perceptions starts with us, but it’s about us being honest with ourselves and recognizing that yes, I am actually a human and I don’t have to be superhuman I don’t have to be a superhero. All of us have some kind of weakness somewhere another.
CW: At least one if not many, right?
DH: Yes, that is exactly true too. So, we’re going to talk about your accident in a minute, but prior to that, what were your plans? What kind of Interests did you have? What kind of Interests were you pursuing?
CW: Well, I was in college – It was a place called Middlebury College in Vermont. I was studying International politics and economics; I have no idea where I might have gone had I not had my accident because in a lot of ways my accident afforded me the opportunity to continue as an athlete much longer than I would have been able to continue. I would have had my time in college and then I probably would have had to become a grown-up and I’m not sure that I’ve become a grown-up yet.
DH: Are you saying athletes are not grown-ups?
CW: I kind of look at my athletic career as a suspended adolescence having been 36 years old and it might have continued after that but that’s an entirely different story. Sports was the way that I saw myself and it has always been a passion. I played soccer and baseball in addition to skiing in high school and earlier, but did a whole lot of other sports. I did cycling and played golf and tennis and basketball and you know pretty much anything that was interesting to me. And so, that’s part of who I was at that point but trying to figure out who I was going to be as an adult and wanting to be quote-unquote successful.
DH: Let’s go back then to December 20th, 1988. What do you remember of that day?
CW: It was my first day of Christmas vacation. I had come home from school the night before and my brother and I went up to the mountain where we’d grown up skiing at a place called Berkshire East in Claremont, Massachusetts. The guy who manages the mountain, his kids were our peers and we had one little strip of snow that was on the mountain and we were going to go train that day. The coach said to take a couple of runs, meet at the timing check and we’ll go set a course. We took a couple of runs and he wasn’t there so we took one more. I was testing a new pair of skis. It was really warm and sunny that day which is unusual for that time of the year. Usually, it’s rock hard, just bulletproof, but it was sort of slushy and warm that day and sunny and in the middle of the turn my ski popped off and that’s all I remember. I fell in the middle of the trail and sort of slid to the edge of the trail so I didn’t hit anything but the ground but I broke two vertebrae and damage the spinal cord and that started a whole new journey. The ski patrol skiing me down, ambulance driving to the hospital, helicopter flying me to the hospital and then the unknown.
DH: I remember watching a video and those videos that you have on your website are great by the way, they really tell the story succinctly and well. So, your friend skis down because he saw you fall which is not so unusual in skiing and then he says – I’m trying to remember the term. All your stuff is scattered everywhere.
CW: It was a yard sale.
DH: It was a yard sale, but then he noticed you weren’t moving and he realize that you’re probably more injured than one would realize initially. So, now you are the hospital and I assume that you were probably unconscious for a little bit, but then you wake up. How do they tell you the news that you may not walk again and how did you receive it?
CW: It was a bit of an interesting situation because my parents and my brother went to the waiting room of the hospital. It’s this tiny little room and they’re just waiting and they have no idea what’s going on, I’m doing all the tests. The doctor came in and in a lot of ways, it was the worst-case scenario – the doctor told them, “your son broke his back, he’ll never walk again,” and then the doctor just left. Sort of spilled this news in their laps and said, okay, “here you go! this is it.” So, it was really emotional for them and it was so limiting in terms of its scope. It was a diagnosis or prognosis or whatever that was, this is what’s happened and this is what will happen and they didn’t want to limit me in that way so they sheltered me from that message.
Nobody told me that I was paralyzed and the reason they sheltered me is because they wanted me to make my own story, to create my own story and not be limited by, “hey, you’ll never walk again, you’re done, your life is over.” And so, they sheltered me and so I don’t remember anyone telling me that and it afforded me the opportunity and there’s the ego of being an athlete or like “hey, well, you know that might be the case for other people but I’m not other people.” So, I thought well, I’m going to do this, I’m going to recover completely and I didn’t know what recovering completely meant at that time.
DH: So, I have to believe that certainly as an athlete and as someone who’s been alive for – how old were you then?
CW: I was Twenty at that point.
DH: Right. So, you have obviously had some disappointments and some setbacks, but that at that point had to be perhaps your biggest adversity. And so, was your attitude, “hey, this has happened but you know what I’m just going to beat this?”
CW: It was the biggest adversity and in a lot of ways probably if you’re in sort of like the classic myth sort of thing, it was like it was my death. I died. Not literally but it was the death of who I thought I was and it was a second chance to start over at 20 years old having had many failures and successes along the way as a kid, but knowing that there were things that I would have done differently if I knew more.
I was starting over knowing a whole lot more. I was an infant effectively, but I have the knowledge of a twenty-year-old.
DH: Interesting. So, you wake up in a hospital bed, you’ve kind of figured out that your legs aren’t working as they used to but you wanted to get active. So, you mentioned you went back to school, was it two months after the accident you were back in school?
CW: I went back to school two months after the accident. That’s where my life was, my life was at school because my friends were there, my future was there in a lot of ways as far as studying or whatever I was going to do next. I felt limited and I felt worried about what I saw in the hospital, the hospital is for sick people, you’re there for a reason and it didn’t seem like there was anything more than a bed with a remote and a television. I had to get out of that situation.
DH: So, a very limiting environment is how you saw it?
CW: Yes, very much.
DH: So, you want it to be active, you’re back in school – how did you arrive at a purpose other than just being active?
20:03 CW: The year before my accident I was at a ski race. I went to a ski race and it was a good race, it was in Vermont, but there were people from the US team, from the Japanese team, from the Canadian team there. And people who go on to win World Cups, and there was a woman who is a one-legged skier there and my first thought was “what was she doing here, why is she here?” And then I watched her, …….and skiing like so many other sports you often have your excuse fully armed and loaded before you even start. And from the outside watching her, she had the attitude of “I’m going to fall down and I’m going to get back out and I’m coming for you.”
And I thought that’s the most pure athlete out there, not sort of dying with each failure or each fall, but knowing that that’s going to be a part of it and that the most important part is what you bring to starting over each time. I thought she was scary because you know, you’re in front of her and you know she’s coming for you.
DH: Yes. That’s amazing because here it is that you are an able-bodied skier and you are drawing inspiration from a single legged skier. Isn’t that amazing?
CW: It is amazing, but it isn’t amazing. I think that Sport and life, in general, is about having our eyes open and if we have our eyes open to what other people are doing, we have an opportunity to learn from that and to assimilate some of what they do well into what we do well. One of the greatest compliments is that you have a tremendous amount of potential, one of the greatest failures is that you haven’t realized your potential. And the first can keep you warm and happy and you think oh, I have a ton of potential and I’m going to be great! Yes, but what are you doing today to be better tomorrow?
DH: And to be getting closer to that potential?
DH: And I think this experience with Diana Golden is golden because it really demonstrates that we are so much more alike than again, what readily meets the eye. Here you are an able-bodied skier and she’s a single legged skier, and she is actually effectively teaching you, “hey, don’t be scared, don’t argue for your limitations.” That’s an important lesson for all of us because we all approach life’s challenges oftentimes quite capable because we are able-bodied…..however, you want to define that….and we behave as if we are disabled and…..
Incapable actually, is probably the more accurate term because you can be disabled in a sense where you have only one leg but as Diana demonstrated, she was quite capable.
CW: It’s not as much the talent as it is the process, Often times of continuing to move forward which is the most difficult challenging and exciting thing that we can do as human beings is continue to grow.
DH: Yes, indeed. My thing is that you have to keep on pushing, it’s about the struggle; some of it because there’s a learning curve but it is also about the growth, about expanding recognizing that you do have this potential. Now, what are you going to do and how are you going to work on those skills that you need to have to realize the potential? It’s one thing to have the potential but how do you realize the potential if you sit still or not push. So, you were inspired by Diana even before your accident and you somehow ended up on skis. Talk us through that?
CW: Well, I was in a really lucky position. So, I’m ski racing at Middlebury College my coach Bart Bradford was training with a junior development program I think out of Mount Hood where you can ski. It’s a ski field outside of Portland, Oregon. And you can train there during the summer and so many national teams and juniors and seniors and everybody trained out there. He was out there and there are no trees so you can see forever. So, he saw the disabled team out there skiing and these guys had Mono skis so he can back in the fall and he said, “I saw these guys skiing, do you want to do this? And I said, “yes, of course, I want to do this! and he said, “We’re going to buy your first ski for you. We’re going to buy a mono-ski for you, I want you to continue to be part of the team”, and that was the process.
He showed up, he and I and the assistant coach went out to go skiing that first day. It was three days short of a year of the first anniversary of the accident. My accident was on the 20th of December and we went out on the 17th. It was in the middle of exams so I took some time off from studying and went out to ski, I thought okay. Well, this is what you do and I went buff! buff! buff! I was just falling all over the place, I had absolutely no idea how to do it so that was my start.
DH: That’s interesting. So, would you say then that there was a steep learning curve getting back on skis……. from when you were obviously, a two-legged skier to being a mono-skier?
CW: There was a relatively steep learning curve but when you’re in it every day it doesn’t seem nearly as steep. I was able to make it from the top to the bottom without falling. I don’t know if I should be saying skiing. I was able to make it on skis without falling and I started racing again probably another week or week and a half after that. It took me a good solid three years…. four years to feel like I was actually good and I was skiing every day during the winter. It was skiing a month during the summer time, it was a complete focus and the beauty of what I had having been an able-bodied skier was that I knew what it was supposed to feel like.
I knew what I was trying to achieve, it took me a long time to be able to achieve it but at least when I did get there, okay, that was it.
DH: Your brain remembered from back when you were a able-bodied skier, that’s interesting. And so, you’re trying to make that connection in your brain to your new body I suppose right?
CW: Yes, exactly.
DH: I know you’re inspired by Diana Golden and you’re not back on skis but at what point do you go, “you know what I want to compete, this could be like my new life.”
CW: I knew from having seen Diana that I wanted to compete and that in a lot of ways I wanted to be the best in the world. Sometimes we look at our lives as kids and we think oh, well, I’m doing this and I’m an athlete and it’s what I’m doing and the clock kind of start sticking in some ways and I felt like I was approaching the end of my skiing career and I never really let myself dream. And opening yourself up to those dreams and open up yourself to all the struggles trying to achieve those dreams, but I hadn’t done it. I felt like there was a fair amount of natural talent and I hadn’t done as much with my natural talent as I wanted to.
Seeing Diana, I said, I want to be the best in the world but I also want to do things that nobody thought were possible. I want to stretch people’s imagination which was the thing for me as an athlete, but then it was also in a way stretching everybody’s imagination with regard to disability in general. It’s not what you couldn’t do, but it was about well if I figure out a way to address this problem, I can do whatever I want to do.
DH: So, you’re able-bodied skier with a certain amount of talent and you are kind of riding that talent as it were, not necessarily dreaming and having these Grand Visions, but now you’re a disabled skier and you’re like, “wow! there’s actually so much more that I can do for myself personally, but also for other disabled persons. Achieving these personal dreams will help me to help people to shift their perception of what a disabled person could be.” That’s pretty amazing. So, talk me through then – you go from falling over to surviving getting to the bottom of a ski hill to actually being able to ski and now you’re thinking about competing. When did you get on the US national team and put yourself in a position to getting to your first Olympics?
CW: I made the US team in April of 1991. The Albertville Games were 1992 so I got in under the wire in some ways and two summers I got in and then I thought, okay, well, I’m on the US team so then that means that I’m going to go compete in Albertville.
And that’s a really simplistic and not necessarily correct view of things so I remember going to my first camp that next year and the head coach said, “well, you know, they’re combining all these classes and so you’re not going to make it to the Games in Albertville,” And I said, “Well, if I don’t make it then I’m probably going to have to do something else.
All my friends are starting careers so if I’m not starting my career by going to the games – and obviously the short-sighted view of a 20 something-year-old, but if I don’t get started now then I’m not going to be able to justify continuing with this sport thing.”
But I did end up making it, I competed in the slalom and giant slalom in Albertville in 1992.
Making it to the games was really the biggest challenge but the guy who ran our team ….. guy named Jack Benedict who is a Vietnam vet, lost both of his legs in Vietnam and then went back into active duty after losing his legs. I mean you talk about badass; he was badass.
When we made the team he said, “Now you realize you’re going over there to win medals, that’s your job? And I said, okay. He told me this is my job and so I actually won two silver medals in the slalom and giant slalom.
DH: Congrats, you did your job. If a double amputee from Vietnam is telling you that you better get it done. I remember us talking and you said with your first try to get on the US team failed, you didn’t get selected?
CW: Well, when I went to my very first race and there were some US team people there and I thought they would recognize potential. I could barely stay upright, but I thought they should recognize potential and name me to the team right now because I know I’m going to be the best in the world and they better get on board right away. They probably made a good decision and say, keep working, keep trying.
DH: Yes, that’s kind of interesting. I was having a conversation earlier and it’s actually in sync with this where we’re talking about people and them being delusional. They have these dreams of grandeur and it’s not that they don’t have the potential but they haven’t yet put the work in to achieve these things. Because I think we all have to be a delusional somewhat to think that some of the things that we want to achieve we can possibly achieve but then there’s still a process, right? You still have to push yourself from where you are to where you need to be our get to in order to achieve those dreams of grandeur.
CW: The delusion creates a sense of excitement. Those dreams, where do you want to go? You need that dream because it pushes you through when things get difficult. You think this is going to be great, I can imagine myself on the top step of the podium. I can imagine myself transforming the world with my performance and then you have to go start and you fall over and go, “Okay, let’s still imagine that but let’s figure out how to get this balance thing down first.” I think that’s what’s really important is figuring out what are the intermediate steps that we have to do along the way and can we enjoy that process and that failure as part of the process that is getting us to those dreams because if we just realize those dreams right away, they’d be so hollow.
DH: You’re absolutely right it would be a very shallow life. I mean if you just think about people who are handed things, even a child who’s just handed a toy that there’s no real appreciation for it. But when you have to struggle, when you have to sweat and bleed in order to get there. I often describe my training as wow! there are times I’m like, why am I doing this because I feel like I’m going to die but then at the end of even the training sessions, “oh, that was fun.” That’s warp thinking right, but I think it’s also true in terms of achieving other goals, the end result is that you’re right; that delusion that keeps the excitement is like wow! It’s like that that Mirage when you’re in the middle of a desert and you go, “Oh my God, there’s water over there, let’s keep going.”
And it gives you that energy to get going and to keep going but you have to keep going you have to make the effort otherwise it doesn’t happen. Well, it’s obvious that you had the potential, you saw it in you when you look in the mirror, but you obviously hadn’t done the work for other people to see it yet and they recognize that. Otherwise, who knows if you would have won 13 medals.
DH: Apart from doing your job, going there to win medals. What are some of the best Olympic memories, what are those moments that stand out in your mind?
CW: Some of it is that you’ve worked so long to get to that point and so Opening Ceremonies often times are some of the greatest moments. The two that I look at were one, in Sydney, which was 2000 was just absolutely spectacular. It was my second Summer Games and just coming into that stadium and it was just throbbing with excitement. It was like you were in front of a gigantic speaker and you can just feel all this excitement coming through. And that was like, “Hey, we’re so happy that you’re here,’ I’m like, “Yes, I’m happy that I’m here too.” And it was really cool because then you feel like okay now it’s time to just go and perform.
Now is the time to play and have fun and do everything I practiced to do. So, Sydney. And Salt Lake were my Games at home here in Salt Lake City and so that was 2002 and it was the same kind of thing where there were 50,000 people in the stands and you think this is absolutely incredible. And I think those are some of the really big moments that when the world gets gets a chance to see because you know how it is, sometimes you’re competing and there are four or five people watching.
DH: You could have been in your backyard for all the world cares, it’s true. It’s kind of interesting that you mentioned the Opening Ceremonies and I kind of have these special memories of the Opening Ceremonies as well. In my head when you walk in the stadium, in that moment, you’re living the dream, right? I think there are other times but in terms of the Olympic experience that’s the first – yes, great when you are named to the team but when you walk into the stadium, 50,000 people, more cameras than you can count and you know that in that instance your image is on TV around the world. And there’s some little kid who’s looking at you and going, “Wow, he must be one of the best athletes in the world.” It’s a tall order, it’s a really tall order to live up to but it’s also the delusion connecting because delusions are disconnected from reality, and in that moment that delusion and reality collides and it makes for a really long-lasting pleasant memory. How many years did you compete Chris?
CW: I think it was 15 years.
DH: Right, but then all good things must come to an end and again, we live this very delusional life and I think there comes a time again, where we have to take that reality check. I mean my mind tells me I’m 18 and I can still do this like my mind keeps telling me that now at 54 and my body is like, you must be kidding. So, you get to that point where it’s time to retire, it’s time to make that transition and, lots of athletes struggle with going from competing, doing two a days, and being in the stadium and struggling and striving. And having friendships with competitors etc. to being regular old Joe. What was that like for you?
CW: Retiring was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. When I was in the hospital, the head doctor, the administrator called me into his office as I was about to return to school and he said you’re not ready to leave because you haven’t been depressed. At that point, I couldn’t afford to be depressed because that would slow me down and I needed to get out and recapture my life and prove to myself that I can still do whatever I wanted to do. When I retired from competitive sport, that depression that I never experienced at the hospital flooded in. I have no idea who I was, I knew who my resume said I was but that wasn’t necessarily what I was going to do moving forward.
There’s no horizontal step to leaving being sort of the best in the world at what you do to now, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just go do that and something else,” And dedicating my passion to it. It’s was a big challenge because I felt like I’ve been so passionate about my sport and when I finished there wasn’t much other than some memories. And obviously that’s a bit of a shallow view of what’s going on but because I had to sort of go back and mine what I learned along the way that would be applicable moving forward.
But yes, retiring was losing my identity, it was losing my youth, it was losing my passion.
Where am I going now? What am I doing? This doesn’t seem like much fun.
DH: Yes, it’s tough and every athlete whom I have spoken to have spoken about that depression that comes. You’re right, your identity is so wrapped up in what you do not so much who you are as an athlete. I think we’ve become one with our identity as an athlete that is hard to see ourselves as anything else and when that ends it can be depressing. And so, how do you push, how do you make that next revolution? As you say that one revolution to take yourself to the next level. How did you make that transition then Chris, from being a depressed retired former best in the world to go, “You know what I’m going to go climb a mountain,” How did that happen?
CW: I think a big part of it and people ask me about this after an accident as well. How does someone recover after an accident? I think part of it is having something to love. If you have something to love, then you’re willing to do the hard work to honor that love of whatever it is. So, for me, I think part of when I left being an athlete is, I lost my voice, I lost my ability to affect more people than just myself. Climbing a mountain literally was sort of my subconscious being far smarter than I was. I had an off-road hand cycle and I was riding this one off-hand cycle up a hill and then down a hill, this mountain bike trail and on the way down this thought literally, just tap me on the shoulder and said you should climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
I was kind of looking around because I had no idea where this thought came from, huh! That’s like it makes sense because we’re all climbing a mountain in some way, we’re all Sisyphus, right? We’re pushing that rock up the hill and try to figure out how we can get up there. But to me it was something having something that was bigger than me myself I mean there’s this sense of purpose where, “Yeah, I could go climb this mountain but I could also affect the lives of a whole lot of other people and I can make it a better world for them and for me.
DH: Yes. I’m not an expert on depression by any stretch of the imagination. I think we all feel down at times but as I understand, people who struggle with depression but it seems to me listening to you that having a goal, having a purpose, creating this compelling vision is one of the ways to snap yourself out of depression and out of self-pity. Because you have something that is going to get you up in the morning, you’re going to be excited about getting up because it’s never a guarantee that this thing that you’re now chasing is actually going to be fulfilled but that delusion again, right?
CW: That delusion and the action usually makes me feel better about it. So, whatever it is, it’s kind of once I get going, I’m like, okay, well at least I’m going somewhere where as opposed to being stuck in one place. And that for me is what I felt is that I was stuck in one place so the thought of how do I get going?
DH: Is that one of the keys then, for someone especially who has just been newly disabled, who just met in an accident and their life has now been changed forever and so they feel stuck. Is that the thing for them to kind of figure out what do I need to do? What’s that Revolution? How do I get going?
CW: I think so and I think that the big thing is the perspective of something small because the problem is you feel like everything’s been taken away from you. Everything in my life has been taken away and that incremental building to say yes, but I did this today and that was better and resisting the temptation to look too far down the road, to look down to that, “Well, this is where I want to be and this is where I was and this is where I am.” “Okay. Yes, that’s there but I can only manage this right here,” this little bit of improvement and being okay with that. I think that that’s part of what we have to remember is that a little bit of improvement every day adds up at the end of the week, at the end of the month, at the end of the year, at the end of a couple of years. And if we show up every day we’re going to get better.
DH: And you know, that’s great advice even for those people who don’t find themselves with a physical disability. It could be that your business went bankrupt or your career ended, you got pink slipped or the relationship ended and you’re right it’s waking up every day not necessarily looking at where you thought you’re going to be given the path that you’re on but accepting that you’re on a new path and what can you do every day to make it a little better. So, you’re now looking to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, what was that preparation like and how long did you train, what does it entail?
CW: The preparation for Kilimanjaro was all of the mistakes that I’ve ever made in my life.
DH: Kind of like first deciding that you want to climb it. Is that one of your mistakes?
CW: That might be a part of it, exactly. But it’s looking back on my life and saying okay, yes, there were a lot of hard times and I found a way to make it through them and because of the mountain you have no idea what’s going to go wrong. You plan for certain things but then something entirely different happens so you’ve got to be ready to say, okay, well, I knew that things were going to go wrong and I’m going to try to figure out what a solution is. The specific training I had to go through – and you will relate to this, I had to go from being really a sprinter to ski racing and racing track where meaningful International competition lasted longer than two minutes. And to go from 2 minutes to an average of 9 to 10 hours a day that was a real callousing effect.
DH: That’s a shift.
CW: Oh, it’s such a shift in mind, and you can stop whenever you want. And that’s the problem of just saying well, I’m here all day and it’s the difference between having a Finish Line and not having a Finish Line that you can comprehend.
That is the real big shift and so is a callousing effect. My guide Dave Penny was this awesome guy and we go out and we climb all these mountains and I remember going six-eight hours or something like that and we’d come back and I was so tired. The first vehicle we had, the transmission was delicate, it was a regular pedal bike but it was delicate and if I went too hard in the beginning or if I really tried too hard instead of just going to maintain this constant effort, I could knock the chain off or break the transmission.
And we’re about a mile from his house and I thought, I should just break this now because I don’t know that I can make it back there. I was like, “No, that’s not the process the process is to keep going,” But then to do that kind of thing where I was so tired that I didn’t think I could get to his house that I could see and then go out the next day and so it’s callousing where you build up the calluses and your body goes, “Alright, so this is what we’re doing? Okay, we’ll figure it out.”
DH: So, that’s sound advice for all of us Chris who wants to climb our own Mount Kilimanjaro. We have to make that shift and go through the process of developing that kind of callousing effect. So, talk us through the climbing of the mountain all the way to the top. How did that work out for you?
CW: Kilimanjaro is a really interesting place in it is three degrees south of the Equator and has snow on the top. You started about 6000 feet at the gate and you start in a rainforest. It was not raining while we were there but it’s really lush, and then you leave the rainforest which is bizarre because it’s a line across the mountain. It’s like leaving a door and you leave the rainforest and you go into the headers and the Moors and then the high desert and then you finish on what they call an arctic climate zone at the top where they have snow – where there is the snow cap on the top of the mountain.
So, absolutely bizarre and for me, it was three days of climbing up to 15,000 feet. It was about a thousand meters a day and about nine and a half miles a day in terms of actual distance, but about a thousand meters or 330 feet or whatever of vertical distance each day. And then the last day was about three miles. A much shorter distance but it was about 4,200 feet of vertical. So, another 900 feet, so shorter distance, more vertical, way more difficult, steeper and looser. And so, that was really the big challenge for most of the climbers, most of the trackers they wake them up in the middle of the night to get up to the top of the mountain for sunrise.
This is the tallest freestanding Mountain the world, so sunrise is spectacular. You get up to the top. Oh, wow, you can see the sun rising like off the rising I guess because I wasn’t there actually for sunrise. That took me two and a half days that last bit because it was so steep it was like pea gravel, it was all this lava rock, you know, just all these tiny little lava rocks. I remember our doctor he was sinking in like six inches he was constantly emptying his shoes because he was sinking in so much.
DH: So, you get to…… was at 13,000 feet and there was this Boulder Field that you had to be carried across?
51:20 CW: That was actually 18,000 feet. That was at Gilman’s point, it was at the end of the pea field and there was this field of boulders and I couldn’t get over these boulders and so my crew ended up carrying me.
DH: I remember seeing videos of you on the bike and it seems so excruciating, you trying to cross the field. I’m watching it and even now as I’m recalling it I’m feeling the pain of trying to roll the bike across that field. You just look like you were working boy.
CW: I was working and the thing about it is you try to go to that place; you try to go to a place where you’re not necessarily aware of that constant pain. And it’s the mental pain as well where I was making such small gains – I did try to occupy my mind and I was just counting revolutions and saying, “okay, once I get to a hundred then I can stop,” And I never actually made it to a hundred. It was that hard, I think I made it to 80 was my most and then it’s altitude so you a whole lot less oxygen up there and so you start thinking I’m going to get to that rock and if I can get to that rock, then I can stop.
But that rock is like five feet away and you think, really! That’s your goal is five feet away and it’s all I could understand and I was just trying to manage that and put it in a place where I could have some success by getting to that rock. I’ve done something.
DH: So, your friends helped you 100 feet across the boulders, but you felt, “No, I did not do this all by myself, I had failed”. And that’s why I said in the introduction that I’m taking issue with your claim that you’re the first nearly unassisted because in my head nobody climbs a mountain by themselves. Would you agree?
CW: I would agree now. My goal when I started out was to get to be the first nearly unassisted paraplegic to climb Kilimanjaro and I felt like I needed that shock to make people see me differently. And in some ways, this is where we attach to our Heroes right? So, I look at like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. Nobody thought that was possible and he broke it and people went, “Well, I guess it’s possible.” He didn’t die and explode so I guess a human can do that and that for me was what I wanted to do.
My main goal was to find a way to really shock the population and funny enough what happens when you do these things is that you end up learning more yourself. I wanted to shock them and I shocked myself into thinking really the greatest thing that I can do is share this experience. That I can share it with my team and that actually makes me part of the group because I wanted to shock people into letting me be part of the group but letting people help me was actually my biggest way to be part of that group.
DH: You are absolutely right. You brought up Roger Bannister which is one of my heroes as well because in high school I ran 800 and 1500 meters and so I’ve known his story forever. But here it is that you as a paraplegic, you’re looking to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and your initial goal was to do it unassisted. Feeling badly because you were helped a hundred feet whereas, the truth is that even the able-bodied people weren’t climbing the mountain by themselves. No one person went for a hike in the mountain and got to the top just by themselves there are others there.
Roger Bannister, yes, he was running track but he didn’t break that mile marker by himself either. I mean he had a coach that he was working with and then within the race they had pace setters that pulled him along, right? So the truth is, an important lesson for all of us man is that no one person succeeds by themselves. I mean, it definitely starts with you, but it doesn’t end with us alone and I know that when you got to the mountain as well, you got a chance to share that experience as a paraplegic person with an amputee who was climbing Kilimanjaro for the first time.
CW: So, Tajiri was a porter on the mount and he got caught in a rockslide and lost his leg as a result of this rockslide and that was his livelihood and it’s a good livelihood and he was working his way up and would potentially eventually have been a guide and would have made more money and all that. So, he lost all of that in this rockslide and we helped him out a little bit, we gave him a new prosthetic leg that fit him better. He trained really hard though, I mean, it’s not like we did everything for him, he had to go out and make this happen. He was the first African amputee to make it to the top of Kilimanjaro.
We’re trying to effect a change within our world here in the US and he’s trying to do a similar kind of thing in the African World. To me, that was something that was really pretty cool to be able to share that with him and to see how much he could change one, how he saw himself and how a lot of other people saw him. He ends up working now for the guide service and so he’s and not doing specifically guiding on the mountain but more office type stuff but finding an occupation that helps them support his family.
DH: Yes, and really buying into a bigger purpose as well because of what you did and what he has done. He has been able to change not just the perception of the rest of us in terms of how we see people with disability, but how people with disabilities see themselves. I’m sure people have said if he has one leg and he can climb Kilimanjaro that guy can go there on a bike then there’s some stuff that I can do as well. So, talk to us a little bit CW about the One Revolution Foundations?
CW: Our mission is to turn the perception of disability upside down. To me, that started with Kilimanjaro because somebody in a wheelchair is not supposed to be at the top of the 19,000-foot mountain. Hopefully, it changes the questions or the comment from, Oh, that’s too bad to a question of what do you do? What do you have to teach me? And it’s a profound answer for all of us. We all have so much to teach other people and we have so much to learn from other people. Our main program is called, “Name Tags” It’s a school assembly program.
We go into schools, it’s a 45-minute program and then usually 15 minutes of Q&A after. So, Name Tags is about the labels that we put on ourselves and others which are often our limitations. How often are we in a position where we say, “I can’t do this because I’m 54 years old.” Because I don’t have enough time, I had too many kids or because I don’t have enough money, because I’m not in shape. It’s like we’re really good at stopping ourselves before we start. So, it’s our resilience. Our motto is, it’s not what happens to you it’s what you do with what happens to you. There’s no such thing as a perfect run and it usually is whoever recovers most quickly who’s going to be most successful so let’s commit ourselves to the recovery before anything has happened.
So, there’s that part of it and then it’s about finding your unique voice. I found that for me, going through school it was really easy to follow the crowd and think okay, I don’t know exactly what I want to do but these guys look like they have figured out so I’m going to follow them. And then it got to a point where I don’t know what I want to do, so try to at least plant the seed with students that your passion is the route to your personal genius in a lot of ways. Be willing to work hard about something or for something that you care about. And so, how can we figure out how to at least open your eyes to that’s something I want to do. Everybody else might not want to do it but that’s something I want to do and I’m going to learn more and it might not be that you become the next Picasso or something, but it might be that you learn a whole lot about that.
If it’s not in sports then it’s applicable to something else. Learn how to learn.
DH: That’s a term I use all the time as well whenever I speak to kids, you learn how to learn. I think that’s what we have mastered as athletes. We’ve learned how to learn and that has allowed us to grow. So, yes, kudos on the One Revolution Foundation, kudos on the Name Tags because as we said earlier, we all have this potential and unless you going start with you and changing your perception, not taking on those labels that society want to put on us whether you are in a wheelchair are not. We all have these disabilities. We should acknowledge them, but not own them.
And so, when you’re able to do that, my man you do create a new name tag and you’re able to make that one more Revolution as tedious and as painful as it might be and it might seem like you want to try to get to five feet. I mean that five feet could be the difference in how your world turns out and so Kudos. CW, it has been awesome because something tragic happened to you, but your life didn’t end up as a tragedy because you determine that it was not what happened to you but how you respond to what happens to you that in the end is important. And you embody that my friend and I’m so grateful that you’re able to find that voice and that you’re able to take it to the world and certainly through your athletic career.
You’re now climbing mountains and working with kids through your books and of course, we can’t forget – I don’t think I mentioned it before, through your work as a motivational speaker as well. You get to share those stories and inspire people all over the place. So, tell us where can we find you for those people who want to hear more about how they can get through a tragic situation and make sure that their life isn’t that tragedy. How they can embrace this philosophy of, “hey, stuff is going to happen, but it’s not what happens to you but how you deal with it.” Where do they find you, Chris?
CW: They can find me in a variety of different places. My for-profit company is Chriswaddellspeaking.com. One Revolution is one-revolution.org and then they can also follow me on Instagram so it’s Chris-waddell-living-it and that’s where you get a lot of photos and find stuff that I think motivates me every day. It doesn’t matter who we are we need that motivation and sometimes it’s a matter of finding it from somebody else and sometimes being a teacher, being in a position where you’ve got to give it to somebody else. And to give that motivation you have to find it and sometimes that gift that you give to somebody else is the gift that you give to yourself.
DH: Exactly.Yes, so folks Chris waddellspeaking.com, onerevolution.org, and Chriswaddelllivingit, right? Listen, man, what we’re sharing with you today is not something that Chris read in a book, it’s what he’s doing, it’s what is living. We’re so appreciative Chris of you sharing your experiences, sharing those gems because you’re living it. You’re demonstrating that things will happen to you, but you can still rise above it, you can keep on pushing and you can make that one more Revolution.
So, thanks bro, thanks for coming on and as always wishing you much success as you keep on pushing.
CW: Thank you very much. You too Devon, thank you for having me and keep doing what you’re doing.
DH: Yes, we definitely will.