July 21, 2011 -- Chris Waddell's face was inches from the ground, coated in volcanic ash. He was exhausted, drained from the previous days of climbing the varied terrain of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. But there was a mountain he needed to climb, so he turned the crank on his handcycle one revolution, and then another, and then one thousand more times until he reached camp for the day.
A skiing accident two decades before had left Waddell paralyzed from the waist down. But because of a hand-cranked wheelchair, he was able to achieve what many assumed was impossible, becoming the first person to summit Mount Kilimanjaro using a handcycle, a trek documented in the 2010 film "One Revolution."
"The idea of climbing a mountain, people could understand that," Waddell, now 43, told "20/20's" Deborah Roberts in an interview. "That's the metaphor for life: This idea that we're all climbing a mountain."
After his accident, Waddell said, he refused to focus on what he could no longer do, telling Roberts that the accident was the best thing that has ever happened to him.
"I felt like a transformed person," he said. "I felt, in a lot of ways, like the person that I'd always thought I was, like the best form of myself."
Waddell was back on the ski slopes on a mono-ski, a ski in which both feet are attached parallel to the board, a few months after his accident. He set his goals high, determined to focus on the positive aspects of his disability.
"That was my full intention, that I was going to be a world-class skier," Waddell told Roberts. "I was going to be the best in the world."
He eventually competed in the Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano and Salt Lake Paralympics Games, winning 12 gold medals for mono-skiing and one gold medal for wheelchair racing in the Sydney games. He became the most decorated paralympian in U.S. history.
But at the apex of his career, he decided to retire and set his sights on his next goal: Kilimanjaro.
"This thought just popped into my head, 'Well, I should just climb Mount Kilimanjaro,'" Waddell said. "I had no idea if it was possible, but I felt like we had to tell the story."
After months of training, Waddell and his team began the climb in September 2009. On the first day, he climbed 3,000 feet of elevation, arriving at camp ahead of schedule. He defied expectations as he cranked through miles of difficult terrain with the help of porters, who placed boards under his wheels to make the trails passable.
Amanda Stoddard, who directed "One Revolution," told "20/20" the porters were amazed by Waddell.
"They were astounded," Stoddard said. "There was a word on the mountain that the porters called Chris. I translated it as nguvu-man: superman."
But for Waddell, making it to the top meant more than just defining himself as superhuman. It meant changing the perceptions of disabled people, a message he shares through his One Revolution Foundation and Nametags programs.
"One Revolution is the idea that something small, that one turn of the crank, can lead to something big," he said. "Hopefully, it can lead to something else, to this idea of change in how we see ourselves.
Waddell hopes that his accomplishments will make an impact on perceptions of the disabled community.
"I want to change the way that the world sees people with disabilities," Waddell said. "It's not what happens to you, it's what you do with what happens to you."