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From paralyzed to multi-sport athlete, Jacksonville veteran is defying all odds

Air Force veteran Chris Wolff was classified as a quadriplegic, 14 years later he's competing in Spartan Races.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — We celebrate veterans every day on the First Coast, and that will certainly be the case on Nov. 11 when we gather for Veterans Day. 

But many veterans suffer in silence when they return from service with injuries.

Chris Wolff is an Air Force veteran who embodies the power of the human spirit by refusing to let his limitations define who he is.

"Wearing a uniform to me was something that represented not only heritage for my family, but it also gave me a meaning of understanding that I was protecting this country," said Wolff. "We are the 1% for a reason."

Wolff served in the Air Force for 11 years, the Tech Sergeant served three tours in Iraq and three tours in Afghanistan. His last tour in Afghanistan ended in a terrifying way.

"Our aircraft was targeted by an individual who opened a white van and shot an RPG into our aircraft," recalled Wolff. Fortunately the RPG didn't explode and Wolff was able to fly home. He received a medical exam upon arriving back in the United States.

"I received a vaccine, a nasal spray flu vaccine and 19 days later after receiving that I woke up paralyzed from the neck down," said Wolff.

The CDC has documented extremely rare situations where a disorder in certain people can lead the flu vaccine to attack a person's immune system and damage their nerve cells. However, the CDC and the FDA closely monitor all vaccines that have been approved for use in the United States and it is believed that the flu vaccine prevents more than 6,000 per year in the US.

"I laid in a hospital bed for two and a half years," said Wolff. "I was paralyzed from the neck down as a C5 quadriplegic and that's what the prognosis was, I was going to be a vegetable, I was told I'd never breathe, eat, walk or do anything on my own again."

The life outlook for Chris Wolff was extremely bleak after his paralysis in 2008, but through sheer determination he made a change.

"For two and a half years I yelled at myself internally to do something," said Wolff. "At about the two and a half year mark I lifted my left hand off the bed by about a quarter of an inch and I knew that if I could do that, I could do more."

That quarter of an inch may have well been a mile.

"The fire from that point on just kept growing from when I lifted my left hand off the bed," said Wolff.

From there Wolff underwent electrical therapy and swim therapy to reteach his muscles how to move.

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"From that point on I've been able to change what is going on and now with this I have the ability to stand and walk and my prognosis at that time was that I would be paralyzed," said Wolff as the once-paralyzed veteran stands up from his wheelchair. "On my own I can take one full step and from there walk with forearm crutches and push through what I've been told I would not be able to do."

Once again, this was just the beginning of a new life for Wolff. A friend and fellow Wounded Warrior named Keith Sekora asked him to go skiing down a mountain in Washington State.

"I started laughing, how does someone in a chair go skiing," remembered Wolff. But there was a way, Chris's life forever changed through adaptive sports.

"Within 15 minutes in there I was put in a monoski, and we just bombed this mountain," said Wolff. "I was going probably 60 miles an hour is what it felt like, and feeling that rushing feeling of doing something more, not only am I confined to this chair, but I can move this chair to a mountain."

He's conquered many mountains since that time. Through the Wounded Warrior Project Wolff competes in Spartan Races, he even showed off his collection of chairs for different adaptive sports.

"It's exhilarating because I'm not confined to rely on someone to do something for me," said Wolff. "Every time I do these events I am pushing my limitations, I am pushing my strength, I am gaining more and more ability as I'm going."

These days Chris Wolff is happily married with three kids, the "Wolffpack". Two of his kids were born after he was paralyzed.

He also has a sense of purpose that was inconceivable laying paralyzed in a hospital bed 14 years ago.

"Wounded Warrior Project saved my life," said Wolff. "The programs that they set up, the veteran just needs to show up and once you do that it opens up avenues you never thought it would do for you."

Wolff hopes to introduce other veterans to adaptive sports and plans on progressing to the point that he can walk his daughter down the aisle when she gets married.

On Saturday, Nov. 5, Wounded Warrior Project will host their annual Carry Forward 5k at their headquarters on Belfort Road in Jacksonville.

 More information about the event can be found here.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare disorder where a person's own immune system damages their nerve cells. 

Chris Wolff did not tell First Coast News whether he has Guillain-Barré syndrome, however, more information about it and the flu vaccine can be found here.

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