Genevieve Vieira
2 minute read
25 Nov 2013
6:00 am

Meet the world’s first extreme wheelchair athlete

Genevieve Vieira

It takes a particular brand of courage to continue when the going gets tough. People say that when life throws you lemons, you should make lemonade.

Aaron 'Wheelz' Fotheringham. Image supplied © Sport the library / Jeff Crow

That’s all good and well, but some things are easier said than done, especially when the lemons being thrown are the size of watermelons.

Still, every now and then you meet someone who is able to turn this philosophy into a reality. When Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham was diagnosed with spina bifida (a birth defect of the spinal cord) at age three, and confined to a wheelchair at age eight, things couldn’t have been easy. But proving that any obstacle can be overcome with a little bit of innovation, Fotheringham managed to turn his disability into ability.

“I never saw the wheelchair as a negative,” he says. “It just meant I could keep up with my friends.”

Spending the majority of his time in skate parks with his older brother Brian, Fotheringham would watch from the sidelines as the guys dropped in and out of half-pipes. One day it occurred to him that using his own wheels, he should be able to achieve the same thing. So he dropped in, fell, bumped his head – maybe a little too hard – got up and tried again.

He admits dealing with scepticism from friends and family, people asking “should you be doing this?”, but he was hooked and nothing was going to stop him now.

After posting a video of his first ever back flip on YouTube, Fotheringham was sought out by the Nitro Circus (a live showcase of action sport athletes who perform daring and often record-breaking tricks in freestyle, motocross, BMX and skateboarding), offering him bigger ramps, larger crowds and more intensity.

With no one to look up to, since there weren’t any other known wheelchair athletes at the time, Fotheringham adapted tricks from skateboarding and BMX. He obtained a cult following around the world, inspiring mass appeal in chair skating, now widely known as WCMX.

Over the years, the now 21-year-old Fotheringham has challenged himself to try more difficult tricks. Success has come with practice. Today, Fotheringham has achieved the world’s first wheelchair mid-air (2005), the world’s first wheelchair backflip (2006), the world’s first wheelchair double backflip (2010) and the world’s first wheelchair frontflip (2011).

“I still crash to this day but it only makes me try harder. Sitting on top of the ramps looking down, it weighs on your mind – the challenge, the height – but the sound of the crowds cheering you on is motivation enough. I have been travelling with the Nitro Circus since 2010 and have felt growth in both body and mind. Of course, there is the possible risk of injury, but it is no more than any other extreme sport.”

Fotheringham enjoys showing young kids that a wheelchair shouldn’t hold you back from living life to its fullest.