Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Make no assumptions

Disability affords possibilities

Express Staff Writer

Waddell used a specially created handcycle to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2009. It took an estimated 528,000 revolutions by Waddell, who rolled on planks that African porters placed along the path to the top. Courtesy photo by Mike Stoner

As a world medal-winning athlete, Chris Waddell knows from experience that when it comes to getting media attention, the fact that he is in a wheelchair makes the story sexier. That's been especially true when it came to proving that people with disabilities don't have to live within limits, by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on a special handcycle.

But after 10 weeks on a tour of schools around the country introducing his documentary film of the climb, called "One Revolution," and fostering his latest project, Nametags, he has confirmed that his message is far broader than don't presume limits on people with an outward challenge.

"My intention is to spread doubt," he said, "doubt what you think you know about another person and their limitations."

The Nametags project is the educational arm of his volunteer foundation, called One Revolution, that arose from his determination to reach more people with his message.

Since breaking his back 23 years ago, Waddell overachieved athletically in an 11-year-tenure on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, which earned him an appearance on Oprah and a mention in People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World." But as he entered his 40s, he upped his sense of broadening his platform.

It started out as a public attempt to make a statement by being the first paraplegic to make it to the top of the mountain unassisted. As the journey unfolded, it took a parallel journey with another man, a young African named Tajiri, an ambitious porter for hikers who climb Kilimanjaro. He had survived a rockslide that killed three others, but lost his leg, and along with it, his chance to be a top guide, which had been within his reach.

When Waddell met Tajiri, he challenged him to attempt the mountain again if he could get a better-fitting prosthetic. And so, the porter turned bike mechanic and the man with a mission took on the trek together.

The award-winning documentary will be shown Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the Sun Valley Opera House. Waddell will answer questions after.

He has had his share of challenging moments along the tour, but far fewer than those of triumph.

"People have a belief the way the world is supposed to go in regards to race, religion, sexuality, and I have just tried to tell my story so that it tweaks their thinking process a little bit," he said from his Utah home. "I don't have to make people wrong so I can be right, I just want to show them a different way of viewing things."

< Waddell was told frequently by educators along the way that his message was even more profound given the number of suicides nationally in response to bullying.

"When I get in front of people, what I'm saying is so much more about social perception. So often as individuals, we are driven by fear, fear of failure, fear of disenfranchisement. That's what bullying is, making someone bear the burden of someone else's fear of who they are or aren't."

Though he has inarguably completed some superhuman feats in his 43 years, "it's about putting your time in and making something happen," he said.

"People ask me all the time, 'Did you want to quit?' On that mountain, no, that's the competitive nature in me, but in the rest of the world, yes. I'm scared to death. Sometimes the uncertainty is crushing. I don't know what I'm doing with this foundation. I don't know where the money is going to come from, but it gets me out of bed every day."

Waddell said he had an epiphany on the mountain that was huge for an independent person like himself. There was a portion, 100 yards, that he hadn't anticipated. As a result, he had to be carried, an epic fail in his mind. But it made him realize that "we can't do it alone, we shouldn't do it alone."

People climb Kilimanjaro to find something out about themselves, he said.

"We had all this press about my doing it, and when that moment came, I thought, we don't have a story. But I learned and I've made peace with the idea that nobody climbs a mountain, whatever kind it is, alone."

It's essential to him that people stop seeing a wheelchair or crutches and immediately look away or say, "I'm sorry." He feels that labels like Asperger's syndrome, ADD and autism have put more pressure on kids to feel normal.

After speaking with more than 100,000 students, he knows he has the message. He's still young enough and driven to win; in fact, on his break from touring he's going to Hawaii to do a marathon.

"But we are still reaching a relatively small group of people," he said. "The encouraging part is that we have a great product and we're changing lives. It couldn't be worse timing economically, but television will always exist and people will always need entertainment and stories—they bring us together and they bring us hope."

He would like to see his movement sponsored like the women's World Cup soccer champions were when Nike took them on.

"We're in a position to inspire people, and there's nothing greater than hope when there's a dearth of it. We get hope by interpreting our own lives through someone else's. We need someone gutsy enough and progressive enough to see the value in what we are doing and package it. We can change the way we look at each other and ourselves and change our paths in the world."

One Revolution

Directed by Amanda Stoddard.

Sun Valley Opera House

Wednesday, Nov. 16., at 6 p.m.

Tickets $10 at door or at Smith Optics in Ketchum.

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