Fives Lessons From a Paralympic Champion
Donna Volpitta • Principal Leadership Article
Thirty-three years ago, Chris Waddell suffered a ski accident that left him paralyzed. Within a year, he was back on the slopes. Waddell went on to become the most decorated male mono-skier in the world, and one of the few athletes to medal in both summer and winter games. In 2009, he also became the first paraplegic to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, which was documented in the award-winning film 1 Revolution.
When he retired from competitive skiing, Waddell asked me to help him develop a resilience education program based on my mental health research and brain work. From there, the program “Nametags” was born. Designed for students in grades three through 12, Nametags looks at the labels—often the limitations—we put on ourselves and others. Presenters inspire students to challenge those limitations, encouraging them to create their own Nametags—concrete representations of the goals they want to pursue and who they want to become.
In a 45-minute assembly presentation—as Waddell and other paralympians share their life lessons through the Four S’s Framework of Resilience—they pause to have students repeat the Nametags motto: “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” The intentionally universal message encourages students to apply our tools in resilience to see obstacles as opportunities for growth and learning instead of roadblocks. We all face challenges. Our success is determined by how we address them. The supplemental, downloadable teacher resources included in Nametags encourages discussion of the concepts well beyond the assembly period. The lessons that Waddell shares in Nametags can be a guiding light for helping educators and students to be resilient.
The Gift of Adversity
In the program, Waddell shares a quotation by Lou Holtz: “Show me a successful person, and I will show you a person that has faced adversity.” So often we want our lives to be easy—free from challenges, from pain, from hard work. The problem is that hard work is what lets us experience the feeling of accomplishment. It is through challenges that we learn what we are made of—that we learn to be the best that we can be.
Waddell leads students throughout the presentation in a chant of the mantra: “It’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Everyone faces challenges throughout their lives. However, we can all make choices about what we do with those challenges: Do we see tragedy, or do we see opportunity? Waddell tells the story of a little girl who, when she realizes that Waddell will never walk again, rides off on her bike and comments, “That’s too bad.” That young girl saw tragedy, not the potential gift.
The pandemic has been incredibly difficult, but through that adversity, we have built resilience. It is important to let our community grieve the losses, but as leaders, it is also important to identify the opportunities that lie in adversity.
The Benefit of Risk
One of Waddell’s greatest challenges was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, not just because of the technical difficulty, but also because he knew that he was putting himself in a vulnerable position by risking public failure. Why did he do it? “The greatest risk that we run in life is never having risked anything at all,” he says. “If we spend all of our time trying to fit in—instead of trying to stand out—we may never learn about that thing that makes us great.” Waddell defines risk as being willing to feel uncomfortable.
Humans can be so fragile. We are so worried all the time about being accepted that sometimes we can miss who we are. The “safe” road is not always the one that leads us to happiness. Just like facing adversity, willingness to take a risk pushes us to go beyond our comfort zone. During the pandemic, everything has felt risky and uncomfortable. Interestingly, the toll of this uncertainty is much more determined by our mindset than the reality of the situation. Let’s help our community to work on developing resilient mindsets.
Nobody Climbs a Mountain Alone
So often in life, we look to individual achievement to measure success. When Waddell climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to become the first paraplegic to summit on his own, he learned a difficult, but critical lesson: Nobody climbs a mountain alone. We need to understand that we have multiple support structures. We also need to learn how to access those support structures because it can be difficult to ask for help.
Nobody climbs a mountain alone—what a great mantra for this school year. According to the research about resilience, strong community support is consistently identified as one of the strongest indicators of resilient response. Our community is our strength.
Small Decisions Lead to Something Big
Waddell’s foundation, One Revolution, was named for one revolution of the crank on his hand cycle. It took an estimated 258,000 revolutions to make it to the top of Kilimanjaro. Each of those revolutions was a choice—a choice to keep going.
Every day, we make a number of choices that usually start with whether or not to get out of bed. Each choice that we make determines who we will become. Great athletes become great through all of their small decisions to practice each day. It is through the small, daily decisions that we choose the way that others see us—our “Nametags.”
Many are overwhelmed with big challenges. As leaders, we can help our community put those challenges into perspective and break them down so they are not quite so overwhelming. Let’s help our communities realize that those small choices really add up!
All About the Four S’s
In Nametags, Waddell outlines The Four S’s of Resilience—self, situation, supports, and strategies. When Waddell was paralyzed, mentally he could have taken a very different path—he could have been bitter and angry, and he could have felt sorry for himself. Instead, he made decisions about what he wanted his life to be.
Regardless of whether a challenge is good, bad, big, or small, our response is determined by the way we think about the Four S’s. Interestingly, the reality of those Four S’s doesn’t matter. What matters is the way that we think of them. Therefore, the Four S’s can be used as a framework to prepare for, handle, and reflect on any challenge in order to proactively build more resilient brain pathways.
The Four S’s offer a framework for all of the other lessons here. When we can consistently use the same language to help our communities handle challenges and build resilience, we can get through difficult times together.
The power of the Nametags program lies in the universal quality of the messages that Waddell sends. The presentation was designed as a template that could theoretically be given by almost anyone, anywhere because the themes are universal and rooted in brain science. When we begin to understand the way that our brains are wired, we begin to understand why we do the things that we do and how we can make more mindful choices.
We are in a unique time period right now. We are all experiencing a pandemic. There are differences in the way that we experience it, but there are also universals. Right now, many conversations start from a position of opposition, and that divisive mindset takes away from building a resilient community. Let’s draw on the lessons from Nametags to unite our communities so that we can face these challenges together.
Donna Volpitta, EdD, is the founder and education director of Pathways to Empower, which provides brain-based, mental health literacy and wellness programs.