Note: An abbreviated version of this story was published in the May 2015 print edition of the Inside UW-Green Bay magazine.
Jeff Pagels’ success as an inspirational author, speaker, Olympic-caliber athlete, natural-resource manager and all-around good guy is fueled by his love for the outdoors and his determination to rise above life’s challenges.
Pagels received his master’s degree from UW-Green Bay in 1986. He chose UW-Green Bay because it was close to home and offered a degree in Environmental Science and Policy. He had been taking one course a semester, but jumped to almost a full load after he broke his back and got out of the hospital.
“I needed something to take my mind off my life-changing injury, and going to school nearly full time was the strong medicine that I needed to move on,” Pagels recalls.
His best memory of campus involves adjustment to his new life. A novice wheelchair user at the time, he struggled early with navigating and making his way around… except when he was at school.
“The UW-Green Bay campus was extremely accessible to me and easy to navigate. In addition, everyone on campus both students and professors were friendly and helpful,” Pagels remembers.
He landed rewarding professional work with the state Department of Natural Resources, administering grant programs and advocating for nature lovers with disabilities.
He worked as a regional outreach team leader. His job involved administering a variety of local grant programs associated with outdoor recreation, clean water, and land use and sewage treatment. Along with his love of the outdoors, his work supported his passion to ensure equal access for recreation users with disabilities.
A quote that Pagels created and uses often, “Mother Nature does not have to comply with ADA.”
At the same time, Pagels’ fierce competitive spirit found an outlet in handcycle racing, skiing, sled hockey, rafting and mountain climbing. His 13 gold medals and three silvers in international competition are highlighted by wins in the world 5K and 10K ski races held in conjunction with the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. At the time, he was the only American cross country skier in history (able or disabled) to accomplish the 5K and 10K double.
A year later, Pagels and another wheelchair athlete became the first to traverse the Sierra-Nevada Mountain Range on sit skis, conquering a 55-mile route and 10,000-foot elevations.
In 2014, Pagels wrote the book Always Climb Higher about his comeback from severe spinal cord injury. The book highlights his decision to stop competing against others and focus solely on competing with himself.
Since his retirement in 2014, Pagels has volunteered at various hospitals and medical centers providing one-on-one counseling for individuals with disabilities. He has developed a park and recreation accessibility manual and has served as a chief advisor in the preparation of a federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service video on accessibility. He also conducts sensitivity sessions for groups involved in providing services to the public and the disabled including the U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other state and federal agencies across the country.
– Story by Daniele Frechette ’11