It wasn't losing the use of his legs that was the greatest challenge, Chris Waddell said, but retiring from professional sports 16 years later.
Waddell was barely 20 years old, a skier at Middlebury College in Vermont, when a skiing accident left him with broken vertebrae and spinal cord damage, causing paralysis below the waist. Stopping wasn't an option, he said.
"I felt like I was going to recover completely and I was going to walk out the hospital. That didn't happen, obviously, but it was still an amazing recovery process," said Waddell, who will speak Feb. 22 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "It was the most powerful I'd ever been in my life. Obviously it was the biggest crisis I'd ever had, but I had to simplify life."
Waddell is coming to Chattanooga as the keynote speaker for Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation's Possibilities Luncheon.
"The true goal of the Possibilities Luncheon is to demonstrate to the people of Chattanooga that there is definitely life beyond disability. Chris has demonstrated that he is extraordinary in all of his accomplishments," said Robert P. Main, chief executive officer of the hospital.
Three days short of a year after the accident, he was back on the slopes, this time on a monoski, or sit-ski, a piece of equipment designed for disabled skiers. Adjusting took a bit of time.
"My mind knew what to do; my body did not know what to do whatsoever. That first day, I just fell over all day long," he said. "I was frustrated, but I couldn't really be frustrated because that would be an acknowledgment that things might have changed on a wholesale level."
Three years later, he competed in the 1992 Paralympic Games, winning two silver medals. He competed in four Games, winning a total of 12 medals. He was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2010.
Waddell retired from competitive skiing in 2004 and began mountain climbing. In 2009, he became the first paraplegic to climb Mount Kilimanjaro unassisted.
"[Waddell] has overcome many challenges in his life and his most recent accomplishment, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, demonstrates what hard work, motivation and commitment can do," said Main.
Reacting to what happens to us, Waddell said, is a choice. The mental adjustment is more complicated than the physical. Learning who he was after retiring from competition, he struggled to find his identity again.
"We struggle," he said. "We as human beings struggle. That's the way it goes. The struggle is learning, growing and dreaming, really. Learning can be really painful. That's the cool part; we keep finding ways to grow as human beings."