By Alexandra Becker
Chad Waligura grew up in the small town of El Campo, TX, where he spent his weekends and summers exploring the great outdoors on his grandparents’ farm. When he was 12 years old, his father took him duck hunting—a transformative experience that reinforced what would grow into a lifelong love of nature. Since that hunt, Waligura knew he would be an outdoorsman for life.
What he didn’t know, however, was that he would end up inspiring countless others with his personal story of grit, determination and perseverance.
In the summer of 1986, when Waligura was just 17 years old, he fractured his cervical vertebra after diving into a swimming pool. He spent the next three months in a rehabilitation program at TIRR Memorial Hermann, working to regain his independence and learning how to navigate life with a spinal cord injury. By the time he returned home, he was desperate to get back to hunting, fishing, and being active outside.
“The first thing I did was get back into the woods and learn how to hunt again,” Waligura said. “Nothing was going to stop me from doing what I loved.”
Waligura kept in touch with his therapists at TIRR, who began to reach out to him to ask if he would be willing to speak with current patients with spinal cord injuries who were interested in similar activities. He was more than happy to share the skills he had developed and the knowledge he had gained in the time since his injury.
“I would explain to them how I was doing it and would show them some of the adaptive equipment I had made and answer their questions,” Waligura recalled. “That’s how it all started, but then in 1997, I became one of the founding members of TIRR Peers, which was formed to connect former TIRR patients with new patients based on common injuries or interests. I’m still an active mentor today.”
Waligura said that his involvement in TIRR’s peer support program initially pushed him to share his knowledge of how to be active after an injury more broadly. In the years since his own accident, he has written articles about able sportsmanship for national hunting magazines, built a website, published a magazine focused on accessibility in outdoor recreation, and hosts regular guided hunts and expeditions.
“Once you go home from the hospital, everything is different. You are very aware of your disability and how much your life has changed,” he said. “But when you go out hunting and fishing, nothing out there has changed—it is the same as it has always been. I want to help people understand that they can still do the things they have always loved, and that is why I have been so vocal about sharing this information and mentoring others. My goal is to reach as many people as possible and provide a path on how to get back into outdoor recreation after an injury.”
Waligura’s newest venture is filming a show, which focuses on hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for people with disabilities.
“My co-host is my friend and para-outdoorswoman from Wyoming, Ashlee Lundvall, and we’re covering every aspect of the outdoors and showing people techniques for hunting, fishing, camping, travel—you name it,” Waligura said. “One of my pet peeves about mainstream outdoor shows is that they will have someone on with a disability and they’ll just put them in a deer stand and have them shoot something and that’s it—they take care of everything else, which is ludicrous. We can still do all the work, like scouting and guiding—all the fun stuff. There is so much more to hunting than just sitting in a stand, and we want to show people that you can do that with an injury or disability. That’s what our show is all about.”
Waligura added that the show will highlight people with different types of disabilities, including the ranges of equipment available as well as accessible activities.
“We want to bring people out with different degrees of ability and really reach as many people as we can and show them everything that is possible in the outdoors,” Waligura said.
Waligura often gets calls from throughout the country asking for advice or guidance on able outdoor opportunities. He has also been widely recognized for his skills, including being named Challenged Hunter of the Year by the Buckmasters’ American Deer Foundation; Outdoor Sportsman of the Year by No Excuse Hunting; and he was given the Pathfinder Award by the Safari Club International. Recently, he became the first quadriplegic to handle a gun dog/service dog in a UKC & AKC Hunt Test.
“I tell my mentees to get out as much as they can,” Waligura said. “I remember the first time I was successful at something after my accident. It was like, OK, I can exhale now. I can do something I love to do—I can still do it. I want people to feel that, because it means everything. It means life is still worth living.”