LAKE PLACID - "What are the good things about being in a wheelchair?" asked a Lake Placid Elementary School student of 12-time Paralympian champion Chris Waddell the morning of Monday, March 3.
"The good thing about being in a wheelchair is I always have my chair with me," said Waddell. "You go to a place, and there are no chairs and you get your food and you don't know what to do. Well, I can always eat on my lap perfectly fine. Parking spaces are kind of nice. In some funny ways, it's not all that much different. One of the amazing things is the change in perspective, being in a wheelchair, I have seen the best in people and the worst in people. It has forced me to see myself differently. I think part of it is realizing that there is always an opportunity, realizing that our life will always take a lot of twists and turns, and sometimes when things go wrong it can be the greatest gift, but you have to realize the gift and ultimately that's the best thing about being in a wheelchair."
"I like that he climbed up Kilimanjaro," said Marley as many of her classmates lined up to get his autograph.
Chris Waddell signs autographs at the Lake Placid Elementary School. (Photo — Naj Wikoff)
"I liked that he was able to climb the tallest mountain in Africa, and that he didn't give up doing it," said Hunter.
"He really inspired me," said Kaley. "He made me think that I can do a bunch of really cool things. Even if something happens to me I can still do it."
"He was very cool," said Linnae. "It was really nice to hear him."
"I think he was really brave to stand up to his what happened to him," said Zoey.
Waddell is a sit-skier and wheelchair track athlete. In 1988, he was a Middlebury student when a skiing accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Coming out of rehab, he set a goal of getting back on the slopes, and just over two years later he made the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. Now, one of the most decorated male medalists in skiing in Paralympic history, Waddell is one of the few who has medaled in both the winter and summer Paralympic Games. Since then, Waddell has gone on to be the first paraplegic to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and been inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Today, Waddell is a popular public motivational speaker and an author of several books.
Waddell came to Lake Placid through the efforts of Lake Placid Center for the Arts board member Diane Reynolds to speak at the elementary and middle/high schools, which included students from Keene Central School, at the LPCA to an audience of students from the National Sports Academy, Northwood School and North Country School, and for a special screening of the documentary about his six-day climb up Kilimanjaro, a series of activities coordinated to coincide with the LPCA's exhibit, "Olympic Inspirations: Celebrating the Olympic and Paralympic Games," on display now through April 6.
"My hope is that we get a bunch of ambassadors for what we are doing," said Waddell between presentations. "My goal, the goal of my foundation, is to turn the perception of disability upside down. I am trying to eliminate the barrier between the able bodied world and the disable bodied world. Sometime that barrier is just an introduction, I want people to understand that we have more in common than we have in our differences.
"What's great about kids is that they will ask questions that adults think is not politically correct. The adults might get embarrassed, but kids ask what they want to know. I want to help kids change their perspective a little bit. It is so easy to spend all your time in school trying to fit in. When you finish, you think I can do whatever I want to do but I have no idea what I want to do. I think there are so many adults out there who are victims of their circumstance. Bad job, bad marriage, bad this, bad that. They complain about it. I want to change that. I want the kids to take control of where they want to go and where they want to be, and then they are not victims, but it makes them responsible too. If you are not happy it's your fault."
"Bad things happen. No one gets through life Scott free," I said.
"That's right, and in some ways you hope not, too. You lose amazing opportunities. It doesn't look like an opportunity until you come through the other side," said Waddell.
"I work a lot with women living with cancer," I said. "None of them would wish cancer on anybody, but nearly all say, 'Boy have I learned a lot from living with cancer. It has changed my life and in many ways for the better.' It's been transformational and, in some ways, the best thing that happened to them in the sense of how it has helped them as a human being."
"Often I get the question from the kids, 'If you could go back, if you had your time machine, would you avoid that moment?' I say, 'No I really wouldn't because I don't know where I would have ended up, and I wouldn't have wanted to change the experiences I have had and the person that I have become,' and that's it. We are not as in control as much as we think we are," said Waddell. "Sometimes the challenges we face become the greatest things we have ever done."
"It's not what happens to you," shouted out the younger grades.
"It's what you do with what happens to you," yelled back the older students.
"I thought he was good, he was inspirational," said Grace after his presentation at the middle/high school.
"He got me to re-evaluate my life," said Hannah. "He gave me a different perspective on things, how you think about the world, how you think about people who are different, and what's normal."
"My takeaway is that it doesn't matter what happens in life. It's what you do about it," said Waddell. "You can go upstairs and mope about it, but that's not going to change anything. It's what can you do to make it better that counts."
For more information about Chris Waddell, visit online at www.one-revolution.com