Portraits of the Paralympics: Chris Williamson
A gold-medal Paralympian, Chris Williamson is one of the best para-alpine skiers in the world, which isn’t surprising considering his family history. In the 1968 Winter Olympics, his father, Peter, represented Canada in speed skating, and his brother, Tyler Derraugh, is also a world class speed skater. So, it’s no wonder that Chris delved into sports at an early age. Although he too was serious about speed skating, even competing in the 1987 Canada Winter Games, skiing became a passion of his at age three. “Even though I’m a disabled person, my parents encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. They didn’t cushion me or worry that my disability would affect me at all.”
Visually impaired, Chris has over the years worked with 20 guides – fully-sighted skiers who ski ahead of Chris on the slopes and alert him via radio about what’s coming up. It’s a partnership that requires a lot of trust and the ability to get along. “The biggest thing is to know the person’s strengths and weaknesses. That goes for both the guide and the visually impaired athlete. In a downhill, we’ll travel around 130 kilometres an hour, and depending on the ski racer you are, you might excel on flats and not as well on steeps or vice versa. You have to have a bond. You definitely can’t ignore or not like each other. Especially when you’re on the road. We’re coming up to our trip to Sochi. We’re going to be on the road for over a month, and we’re spending every single day together. If you don’t like each other, it gets very sickening very fast. You have to have a good relationship with each other.”
Building rapport with people is something Chris does professionally. As a customer service representative for a major Canadian bank, Chris is also one of few elite athletes juggling a full-time job with full-time training – not to mention a busy family life. “I have, I’d say, a passion for customer service. I like being able to help people and being able to talk to people. This job also gives me the freedom I need as about 99% of stuff happens on one day, and there’s no take home work; there are no lingering thoughts like, I have this client that wants this done three days from now. Well, I’m in Europe in three days, so I can’t help them at all. At least in a customer service role, it’s all day-to-day stuff. I can do my work, I can interact with people, I can help them achieve their goals, and then the next day, I can fly off to Europe and do the training and racing I have to do – and then return and just step back into that role.”
When asked how he manages to balance work, life, and sport, Chris says it’s about cooperation and making room in your life for everything that matters. “I think it’s always difficult to juggle because there are always tons of things, especially being on the road so much, that you miss in your children’s lives. I’ve often missed parent-teacher meetings. I’ve been known to Skype into parent-teacher meetings just so I can be involved and in the parenting process while I’m on the road.” However, at 41, Chris admits the Sochi Paralympic Games will definitely be his last – and on his terms, despite sustaining injuries in the couple of years leading up them. In addition to his family, a picture of whom he always keeps in his backpack, Chris says his motivation comes from his passion for the sport and sheer willpower. “Instead of an injury dictating that I have to stop doing what I’m doing, it’s my choice. And I’ll be happy to be done with it and have accomplished what I’ve accomplished in my career. But at least then it’s also me deciding that my career is ending.” Chris’ family will be happy too. “The biggest thing that my family’s quite excited about for my retirement: it’ll be a lot easier to schedule Dad in for things.”
When asked about what skills he feels are transferable between sports and work, Chris highlights teamwork and communication. “You have to keep that line of communication open, and a lot of honesty and a lot of trust, and also, a lot of nerve and a lot of willingness to take the challenge. Allow somebody to set a goal for you and try to do your best to achieve that goal. You find that there are people that will take a job and they’ll do okay, and they’ll be semi-successful. But the ones that look at a goal and try to achieve higher than that are the ones that will have true success. I’m a big believer in always trying to do my best no matter what role I’m in. I’m just like everyone else. You have those days where it’s tough to get up in the morning and you’re sort of slogging through it, but then I try to remind myself of what my goals are and what I want to achieve. My goal, no matter what, is to give the best customer service I can. Whatever I do, I’m happy as long as I feel that I’m doing the best that I can.”
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