Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham is turning the wheelchair into an extreme sports machine. How? By pulling off the toughest trick in the biz
It’s a cold February evening, and I’m trying—and failing—to stay warm at a live music event on Maryland Parkway across from UNLV. Punk-rock band Guilty By Association is wowing the packed audience with one savage scream-along after another. A mosh pit erupts, quickly reaches critical mass — and then a guy in red flannel comes wheeling right into the music-inspired melee.
Wheeling — literally. On two rad wheels.
This wheelchair-bound whippersnapper gets clocked in the face by a stray elbow. He just smiles and joins in, using one hand to maneuver his chair and the other to stiff-arm his way into the eye of the storm. He eventually pushes his chair through the frenzy, disappearing amid careening bodies until he’s up front, practically in the guitarist’s face. He begins moving to the music like your average adolescent hardcore fan. Another kid on the edge of the pit trips and falls to the ground next to him. The chairpunk reaches down to easily yank him to his feet.
Strong dude. I wonder if ... naw.
Days pass. It’s a sunny, crisp, blue-sky morning at Doc Romeo Park in the Centennial Hills neighborhood of northwest Las Vegas. Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham — the guy responsible for both the world’s first backflip and double backflip in a wheelchair — pulls up in his silver pickup truck, which sports a Guilty By Association sticker. Yep, same kid.
He opens the door and in seconds, relying on his massive and muscular arms, gets out of the vehicle and hops over to retrieve his chair from the back. The guy’s a living, breathing Superman. Except that he can’t walk. But he can most definitely fly.
Indeed, Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, 19, is a grown-up superhero and a serious role model to those who endure disabilities yet refuse to be limited by them — and an inspiration to the rest of us who think we have challenges to overcome. A self-described “hardcore sitter,” Fotheringham was born with spina bifida, a condition that inhibits spinal-cord growth. When he was 3, doctors urged his parents to get him a wheelchair, even if he didn’t want it, and to just keep it around. Initially, this idea troubled his parents. They wanted him upright. They wanted him standing. They wanted him using crutches. But the boy’s destiny would not be denied. He was born to ride.
The wheelcore way
For the first eight years of his life, Fotheringham used braces and crutches to get around, but like any kid he was a bit of a daredevil. Maybe more so. He’d don a superhero cape and jump off his bunk bed. Once he got into a wheelchair, though, a whole new world of possibilities opened up. He never, ever considered the chair to be anything other than a toy. It was something for him to play and experiment with, to modify and change on a whim. It was not a prison, but a means of propulsion.
Fotheringham grew up in Vegas and spent time at local skate parks, especially the Doc Romeo facility near his parents’ house, watching his older brother Brian ride BMX bikes on the concrete ramps. In front of Aaron’s friends, Brian encouraged — OK, maybe dared — his sibling to ride his wheelchair in the park. Peer pressure did its necessary work, and Fotheringham dropped in, crashing his chair hard, but otherwise remaining unscathed. He’s been hooked ever since.
“Yes, it was a crucial moment in my development as an athlete. But I was always really active as a kid, even before that,” he explains, pulling his skater cap down over his eyes to shield them from the bright sun. “I used to go up and down and over curbs and driveways on my wheelchair. I had a handcycle bike that I would go absolutely nuts on, jumping off wooden ramps and things like that. So I always had it in me. It was just matter of time, I think, before I would’ve dropped into that quarter pipe.”
The psychological knack for thinking of the wheelchair as extreme sports equipment was instantaneous. He began practicing every day, mastering tricks — carving, grinding, power-sliding, spinning, air-catching jumps — everything and anything else a freestyle biker and skater can do. He equipped his wheelchair with shocks and four-wheel suspension to absorb impacts. He honed his skills to win the 2005 City of Las Vegas AmJam BMX Finals.
“Aaron has what I like to call ‘the skater’s eye,’” says Hektor Esparza, Skateboarding Program Leader at Winchester Cultural Center, who witnessed Fotheringham win his AmJam title. “He sees himself and the objects around him differently than other people. Where you and I might see nothing, he sees a way to creatively express himself. He has a natural sense of physics, not an academic one.”
“I was a little hesitant about competing, because I didn’t want to be evaluated or looked at differently than the other riders,” Fotheringham says. “I don’t want or need sympathy. I don’t need special treatment. But the judges assured me that they’d judge my riding accordingly, and so that made me feel better, you know?”
With the AmJam title secured, his confidence grew. And so did his fellow athletes’ confidence in him. He quickly figured out how to nail a mid-air 180-degree turn. But fellow skaters and riders kept suggesting a crazier idea: Do a backflip with the chair.
“I started hearing it so much and thinking about it so often that I had it all worked out in my mind, what it would look like, how I could technically accomplish it,” he says. “I mean, it’s as simple as pulling on the frame, sure. But I had to practice it.”
During a week-long extreme sports camp in the summer of 2006, he had just one goal in mind: to execute the perfect wheelchair backflip. It took him two sweaty, head-and face-landing days to pull off his first flip in the gymnastic foam pits.
“I’m claustrophobic, so when I get stuck on my head in the foam, my chair on top of me, I’m not comfortable at all.”
Although he videotaped his backflips that summer, posting successful landings (and plenty of missed landings) on YouTube, it wasn’t until fall of 2008 that Guinness World Records observed his feat in front of an audience of 400 at Doc Romeo Park.
By that time, his arsenal of tricks had exploded: soaring hand-plants, insane wheelers, rollouts galore. Sponsors called, both wheelchair and athletic companies. His life exploded too — in a good way — and with scheduling help from his mom, he began to travel the U.S. and the world, attending camps for disabled kids, working as a coach and mentor, and being featured in every media, from short documentaries to Nike commercials to an appearance on reality TV show “Secret Millionaire.” (He’s not the millionaire in question — yet.) Emails flood his inbox, thanking him for the example he sets, for the inspiration he gives to the disabled and abled alike. Watching him execute his signature backflip at Doc Romeo Park, I’m simultaneously awestruck and embarrassed. Here’s a guy catapulting through the air, easy-peasying the landing, and refusing to let something as minor as being strapped to a metal chair bring him down. Meanwhile, people like me whine about and struggle to get up to jog a mere mile once a week.
No wonder Nitro Circus Live hired him. Fotheringham has already done overseas tours with the notorious crew of adrenaline-seekers (which includes motorsports sensation Travis Pasaran, among others), most recently in February with a two-week stint in New Zealand. (Dropping down the 50-foot “Giganta-Ramp” is just another day at work for Fotheringham.) Occasionally he lands wrong and gets a concussion, despite his helmet. (He’s only broken his arm once.) Most of the time? He nails it.
Last year, he mastered the double backflip. That’s probably because he spends at least 40 hours a week at Doc Romeo, practicing technique, honing tricks on what’s become his training ground.
“I’d never leave Vegas because we have a buttload of awesome parks,” he says. “They were so important to me growing up. Less than three miles from my house, in every direction, I can find a killer skate park. Where else can you get that?”
When he’s not touring, teaching workshops or instructing at a camp, Fotheringham stays busy editing videos of his tricks and toiling in his new metal fabrication studio. He’s working on getting certified as a welder so he can start creating his own line of extreme wheelchairs. So far he has fashioned a bed cage and bumper for his truck.
“I love video editing and photography and welding, but I like to keep moving, too,” he admits. “I get bored staying still for too long.”
Which is why you’re as likely to spot Fotheringham in a mosh pit as you are at Doc Romeo Park, where people gather to watch the superstar in action. After a sweaty wheelcore session, he’s ready to go home to work in his metal shop.
On the way back to his truck, he takes the stairs — rolling, tumbling and rocking right over them.
For more info about Aaron Fotheringhman, visit www.aaronfotheringham.com.