Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham was born with spina bifida, a defect of the spinal cord that, among other things, limited his ability to walk. But being bound to crutches and a wheelchair since he was 3 years old never stopped this charismatic, determined youngster from achieving his dream. He does not see the wheelchair as burden, but rather an “awesome tool” that enables him to move around and have fun with it. “I have wheels stuck to my butt. How can that not be fun!”, he said.
Aaron “Wheelz” arrived in Beijing, China this week to share his inspiring story of strength and determination with the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) community, accompanied by his father, Steve Fotheringham, and Stuart James, the Executive Director of WheelsPlusWings, a foundation created to lift the expectations of what “differently-abled” children can do in life. In Asia, and China in particular, children born with disabilities are often abandoned at birth, or hidden from the public, because families and society as a whole fail to realize that these children deserve the same opportunities to succeed in life as other, more able individuals. By supporting children in need, and showing society how they can thrive and successfully contribute to their communities, WheelsPlusWings wants to empower disabled kids to achieve independent mobility on a path to a better life.
Inspired by his older brother, a BMX rider, Aaron first started “shredding” the skate park at the age of 8. “My brother helped me get up this 4-foot ramp, and just pushed me down! I face-planted at first, but I liked the feeling, and wanted to do it again”, said 22-year-old Aaron. From then on, he was hooked! Whenever he wasn’t at school, you could find Aaron carving, sliding and grinding in the neighborhood skate park. As he got bigger, the tricks got bigger and more dangerous as well. Over the years, “Wheelz” has amassed a number of world records, including perfecting a mid-air 180-degree turn, the first wheelchair back flip, double back flip, front flip, highest jump and largest gap jump off of a Mega Ramp. What’s next? “I’m always trying new tricks. Right now I’m working on perfecting my double front flip”, says Aaron. “I’m scared to dream, because everything seems to be coming true. As soon as you think something is impossible, and you do it, then you try something new, better, scarier!”
In 2010, Aaron was recruited by Nitro Circus, a TV series starring X Games Gold medalist Travis Pastrana, the world’s greatest actions sports star, and a crew of some of the best known and accomplished action sports athletes on the planet. “Touring and doing stunts alongside the Nitro Circus crew has been inspiring and a lot of fun. When I see someone like Travis Pastrana do a trick on his bike, I immediately think I can do that too!” Since joining Nitro Circus, Aaron has been lucky to travel the world, meet star athletes like Tony Hawk, and share his story with the world. “I was able to go further than I could’ve ever dreamed of – all because of my wheelchair”.
From a very early age, Aaron never let his disability stop him from doing what other kids did. At school, he fought hard to be included in regular PE classes, instead of adaptive classes with other kids with disabilities. “Your disability is in your head. If you change the way you think about your disability, anything is possible. I never cared what people said or thought about me, because I had positive thinking and, most importantly, I was having fun”, Aaron told the students.
Performing all these stunts and tricks hasn’t come easy. Some tricks required weeks and months of practice, endurance and determination, as well as plenty of bruises, concussions, and broken teeth. Aaron quickly realized that a regular wheelchair would not give him the freedom, flexibility and durability he needed to realize his dream. So he partnered with his friend Mike Box to design a special chair made of aluminum and titanium frame for strength, shock- absorbing skateboard drive wheels for versatility, and bottom suspension for comfort and support. When doing his stunts, he also wears special protective pads, helmet and neck brace.
During assemblies with Elementary, Middle School and High School students, Aaron captivated the audience with his charisma, his sense of humor, and relaxed attitude, taking selfies, posting on Instagram, and signing autographs throughout the day. During the evening presentation to the community, part of the Distinguished Speaker Series, and sponsored by WAB’s Parent Link, host Vic Caban engaged in a lively and interactive session that energized the audience.
Watching the demonstration videos, one could only wonder what it was like to parent a child like Aaron. He was adopted at birth, and grew up in Las Vegas, USA, with five other adopted siblings. “Aaron defeated all the odds, and embraced his disability in a unique way”, said his Dad, Steve. His advice to parents? “Let your kids take risks. Aaron never did a trick he wasn’t ready for. He knew his limits, and progressively challenged himself to try new things. When we saw him at the top of the 50-foot Mega Ramp, we were not scared. We knew he was ready.”
Since he is the first athlete of his kind, Aaron does not have a coach. “Nobody has done what I do before me. My friends who are professional BMX athletes give me advice, but they don’t really know how to do the tricks with a wheelchair. I have to figure it out on my own. It takes a lot of practice”, he said.
Aaron “Wheelz” will continue to travel the world with Nitro Circus, and competing in WCMX (wheel chair skating) events. While in Beijing, he is planning to test the ramps of Woodward Skate Park, and is very excited to visit the Great Wall for the first time later this week. Who knows? He may be inspired to try a trick or two…