In this episode:
Mark Miller, host of the IAP, chats with Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, a four-time winner of the WCMX World Championships. Though he was born with spina bifida, a defect of the spinal cord that made it impossible for him to walk with the assistance of crutches, Aaron soon found that his wheelchair could do a lot more than just get him from point A to B. Mark and Aaron chat about what inspired Aaron to start using his wheelchair as a surrogate skateboard, and how his mindset of making the most of what he was given has enabled him to live his life to the fullest.
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Announcer: Welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast, bringing you the people, technology, and ideas helping to make your world accessible to everyone.
Mark Miller: Hey. Welcome to IAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast brought to you by the Paciello Group and its affiliate, Interactive Accessibility. I'm your host, Mark Miller, thanking you for helping us make it accessible. Do us a favor. If you're enjoying the IAP, share it. Tell someone about it. Hey, even link to it from your Accessible website.
Welcome, everybody. Thanks for listening. Real excited to have with me today and to welcome to the show, Aaron Fotheringham, a.k.a. Wheelz. Aaron, great to have you here. Thank you so much for joining the show. Can you just start by telling us why your nickname's Wheelz?
Aaron Fotheringham: [laughs] It started off in middle school. I was just always doing tricks around school, and the kids first started calling me Wheelies. Then it just kind of morphed down to Wheelz, and stuck ever since. [laughs] I never got it, though. I don't get it.
Mark: [laughs] It doesn't make sense to you?
Aaron: No. [laughs]
Mark: For those of you listening, Aaron actually has wheels stuck to his rear end, right? Have you been in a wheelchair all your life, or was there a certain age in which something occurred? I don't know the backstory here, so tell us how you ended up with wheels strapped to your rear end.
Aaron: I was born with spina bifida. I guess that's the beginning of the story. I used crutches and a walker for the first few years of my life. About the age of eight, the crutches and the walker just were slow and painful, so, about the age of eight, I started using a wheelchair full-time.
Mark: I've seen some of your videos. If you go onto YouTube and you search Wheelz or Aaron Fotheringham, you'll find these incredible videos.
Was it right at eight when you realized, "Hey, I'm in this wheelchair, and this wheelchair is basically fun"? That you started really playing around with it, or was there a period of time when you were like, "Hey, I'm not so sure this is that cool," and it took you a while to build up? What was that experience at that young age like for you?
Aaron: The wheelchair was always a relief because the doctors just wanted me to have one, even before I used it, just to have it just in case. For a while, I use the crutches and stuff, but then when I need to go on a walk or something, I wouldn't walk. I just take my wheels.
For long distances, I would use the chair. It was a relief more than anything because I know a lot of people frown upon using the wheelchair like, "You got to walk."
Mark: All those physical therapists out there want you to get up and walk around, right?
Aaron: Yeah, you're a quitter if you start using a wheelchair. I feel that's a big...The vibe I got.
Mark: It's interesting you put it that way because you grab this wheelchair, and you actually went in a different direction with it. You didn't go, "Oh man, I'm resolved to this wheelchair and now I get to..." Whatever mentality that you might have had that would have gone in the other direction.
You went, "Hey, I've got wheels dropped to me. We're gonna use this." Tell me, tell the listeners, when did you first start doing crazy things with this wheelchair?
Aaron: Well, it started off as doorbell ditching.
Mark: You're a real skateboard counterculture. This isn't a thing. This is what you just started off with.
Mark: "I'm gonna cause some trouble. I've got wheels."
Aaron: I thought it's my introduction into adrenaline.
Aaron: My brother was a BMXer and a skater for a while. I always looked up to my older brother. His name is Brian. Just was real big into watching X Games and stuff. I had this dream of being a pro-skater, but you could tell that I have different set of wheels.
Mark: Then, what was the first thing that you ever just went, "Hey, I'm gonna try to do this?" Was it a street thing where you saw something out in the environment, and you're, "I'm gonna do something crazy on this with my wheelchair?" Did you head to a skate park? Where did you get the guts to do that first crazy thing?
Aaron: I started off jumping off curbs. I remember messing around on curbs with my chair. Messing around with that, then I would end up at the skatepark watching my brother.
One of the times I was there, he helped me get my chair to the top of a quarter pipe. [laughs] Oh, yeah, my dad was there. We were there watching my brother. I ended up on top of a four-foot quarter. Not super big, but that was the first time I feel like I was scared out of my mind.
Mark: You did it. You actually dropped into the quarter pipe anyways, even though you were scared.
Aaron: I didn't have a helmet or anything. I am up there, and I remember being so scared. Then I pushed over the edge, and I faceplanted down to the bottom.
Mark: [laughs] You want to be a skater, but like you said, you got a different set of wheels. You step up to this quarter pipe and have this same experience every skater does for the first time. You drop into it and faceplant.
Did you feel like you made it at that point? "Yes, I can be a skater. I can faceplant off a quarter pipe with the best of them."
Aaron: I don't know what I was feeling. I don't think I was feeling super pumped. It took a couple more tries before I rolled away from it. I figured out...
Mark: Did you get back up that same day and drop in again?
Aaron: My brother helped me get back up the quarter. When I reflect back on it, I'm like, "He's probably trying to get rid of me."
Mark: [laughs] It wasn't smart at all. Meanwhile, your dad's probably running to the sports shop as fast as he can to buy you a helmet. [laughs] Let's get a helmet on this kids...
Aaron: After that, I ended up going to a garage sale. I bought a full-face helmet for 15 bucks. That was the start of that for me.
Mark: It takes so much guts. I can relate because as you and I were talking before the mics heated up here. I'm a skater. My son and I go -- I say I'm a skater, that's a strong way to put it -- I go skate with my son.
I can remember the first time I was hanging over that quarter pipe. I would imagine you had to drop in on something that was at least a few feet big, to begin with. It would be nothing for you to drop off little half-foot ones that some of us skateboarders start with.
You dropped off something that had some height in the beginning. Hanging over that with a skateboard and looking down, it is terrifying.
I can relate to what you must have felt like. This is what I am trying to get to. What is impressive to me or makes it even scarier is you didn't watch a bunch of kids drop in on a wheelchair.
You're the first person doing that. You have no idea if it can be done or what it's going to be like or what the fall's going to be like when you got a wheelchair strapped to you. That would make me nervous. Do you think it was a little bit more of a scary experience for you because it was so unprecedented with the way that you were doing it?
Aaron: I never even thought about that. [laughs]
Mark: You just kept doing it.
Aaron: I was trying it out. Trying to figure it out. I was super scared, especially once I realized, "Oh, I should probably do a wheelie and lift up the front wheels when I drop in so that I don't just dig in and faceplant."
When I rolled away from that, that was when it really opened my eyes to "Whoa, this is possible. I might be able to keep doing this." From then trying to bigger drop in and work my way up.
Mark: It sounds like you spend a little bit of time in the skatepark hanging out with your buddies, doing all those things that your skater friends were probably doing. At some point, this builds up, and you end up doing bigger things. Ultimately, you end up in the X Games, is that right?
Mark: Before then, you're doing other shows and other bigger things. Talk to me a little bit about this transition from, "Hey, I'm messing around in the skatepark with my buddies and hanging out and doing all of that" to big jumps, big air, big events.
Aaron: What opened my eyes and started the snowball effect was when I landed the first wheelchair backflip in 2006. It was the first backflip on a wheelchair in history. It was also [laughs] my first backflip, more importantly.
It was that moment that I was like, "Holy crap." This is something that I'm able to do big tricks like the BMX riders and stuff.
From then, the video ended up on YouTube, and I got sponsored. I traveled to Europe, went to Germany for a sponsor, did some shows and stuff. That was what really kicked it all off. To look back at where things have gone, it's unreal, never expected it.
Mark: It just dawned on me. You're inspired by BMX. You're inspired by skateboarding. Essentially, what you're strapped to is something between those two things. Right?
Mark: It makes sense. I'm out there in the park with all the BMXers that are on a lot of the same stuff that we are. It totally makes sense that you do this, this transition from more skatepark stuff to bigger air stuff.
Back in my day, we did a lot of BMX riding, but it was mostly racing. Now BMX is about a lot of big air and things like that. That's what you see at the X Games.
You decide, "Hey, I'm gonna be the first guy to do this on a wheelchair." Here's what's insane to me is that most people don't do a backflip that aren't in a wheelchair. That's a scary thing for the average person that doesn't have some sort of a disability to do. Here you are, "I'm in a wheelchair. I am just going to go ahead and do this anyways."
Do you ever stop to think about how...To me, it's insane that it would go through your head that what's you were going to do. To the point where you achieve it. Do you ever think about that, or is it "I'm me and that's what I wanted to do."?
Aaron: That's funny that you say that. Really, I'm always surprised. Why is this inspiring? I don't get it because I'm like another skater, whatever, out there having fun. It was something I wanted to do. I'm having fun. I don't even feel like I overcame anything, really. It was I made the most of what I had.
Mark: That's amazing. One of the questions I've had in the back of my head to ask you is what do you think it is about your mentality that makes you do this where somebody else who has some sort of a challenge might succumb to it a little bit more.
I think you just said it. You don't even view yourself as having a challenge. It's you, and it's different. You have wheels instead of legs. You're going to go out there and hang out with the guys like anybody else would and do what they're doing. Is that fair? It seems like a perfect mentality.
Aaron: A big part of it was that I felt super grateful all along. I felt grateful that my spinal bifida wasn't worse than it could have been. I dodged the bullet with a lot of medical issues that I could have.
From there, I felt grateful I didn't have a shunt or hydrocephalus. I was grateful that I had the wheelchair so that I could keep up with my friends while they rode their bikes. I felt super grateful for everything. Taking the wheelchair to the skatepark was a natural thing. [laughs]
Mark: To answer your question, if you want to know why you're inspiring, that's why you're inspiring. There's people who have every advantage that don't feel that grateful. Here you are with a particular challenge, and it's an obvious challenge too. It's not a hidden disability or anything like that. It's real clear what's different.
You treat it absolute like normal, and you achieve things above and beyond what the average person does. You're grateful for every bit of it. That's what's inspiring.
Take someone like me who's jumping on a skateboard, and I have my feet and I having a bad day, and I go, "Oh, my gosh, woe is me. I'm having a bad day."
All I have to do is stop and think about somebody like you and have that internal conversation. "OK, you're being silly. People have overcome or people do things or achieve things in much different situations on your end. If they can do that then you can stop feeling sorry for yourself and pick yourself up and keep moving on."
That's why you're inspiring, dude. Does that make sense? Don't sell yourself short. You're amazing. You would be amazing under any circumstances. The fact that you're doing what you're doing, given that you have a challenge, is even more amazing. Yeah?
Aaron: I appreciate that. I always feel like my biggest struggle isn't my wheelchair. It's my own mind. There's a lot of times where I'm depressed like anyone. I'm pissed at the world. I am struggling. Then someone's like "Whoa, what you did was real inspiration." What the heck, I'm over here struggling.
Mark: Doesn't feel inspirational over here.
Mark: We all experience that. It's normal. It's what we all experience.
I'm a 50-year-old dude, and I'm in a skatepark. Some people say that's inspirational. I'm like, "Yeah, but my knee really hurts because I just fell."
Mark: That's great, but "Ow."
Tell me what's it like...This is something that I can't in all relate to. The big air that you get. You are up there for a long time. You travel a long way. The whole time, I am assuming you are somewhere in your head, "I hope when I land, I don't fall."
You are going, I don't know how fast to achieve all this. What is like to be that far up in the air for that long waiting for that landing ramp to show up?
Aaron: Man, it's feels like forever sometimes. It feels like the whole process from the time you drop in the top to the landing, it feels like forever. I'd say at the top of the ramp. I'm super scared. Why am I doing this? How have I done this before because this seems terrifying.
Aaron: It's really about not thinking. That's what I've come to learn. The best thing is to not think about anything.
Mark: If you do [laughs] , you probably wouldn't do it, right?
Aaron: Before you do a trick, you want to think about it. I feel when it comes to doing a trick on the mega ramp or whatever, the more you think about it. You overthink it. You make it worse.
You got to trust. It's the most ridiculous thing because you got to trust that your mind and your body know what to do. Mostly your body, the muscle memory. The best thing is to go on autopilot. It's easier said than done.
Mark: [laughs] That's incredible, though. I just imagine the feeling that you must have mid-arc after you leave the ramp. It's got to be...You look down, and you're, I don't how far off the ground, flying through the air.
Let me ask you this question too. This is interesting. When we're out skateboarding, right, and the real good guy show up. Some sponsored team.
We went to Nashua, New Hampshire. We saw the Independent team show up with their skateboards. These dudes get on the skateboard, and they start skating around. Normal stuff that they're doing looks way different because of their time on the board. They've spent so much time with their feet on the board that they have a nature and ease on that board that the average person doesn't.
Then I think about you, and you're not grabbing your wheelchair and heading out to the skatepark. The wheelchair is what you use to move around all the time. You get out of bed into your wheelchair, I assume. You're getting breakfast. You're doing your daily stuff in this wheelchair. Then you go to the park, and you're still in it.
Do you think there's an advantage, or do you think it helps the fact that the thing that you use to do these amazing tricks and stuff is also the thing that you're in every day and you're so comfortable with it? Or do you think it doesn't matter at all?
Aaron: I do have a huge unfair advantage. Like you say, I'm in it all the time. I get to practice a lot. I use different chairs for different things. I have a house chair, then my park chair and stuff. The one thing I really liked about WCMX, the Wheelchair Motocross...
Mark: I love it.
Aaron: ...unlike most wheelchair sports, this sport you're using the actual wheelchair. You're not getting into a basketball chair or a sled or something completely different. I like the skatepark because I was using a wheelchair that looked like a wheelchair. That, to me, was cool. You're doing flips on a freaking wheelchair.
Aaron: There's something about it.
Mark: That's unbelievable. Do you still hit the skatepark and stuff?
Aaron: It's starting to get a little cold. I don't like smashing the ground when it's cold. Sorry, what was that?
Mark: I was going to ask you if you had any indoor parks that you could go to?
Aaron: The indoor parks out here don't stay in business very well, sadly.
Mark: What part of the country you're in?
Aaron: I'm in Las Vegas.
Mark: That makes sense.
Aaron: We have so many outdoor parks that are free. No one wants to go spend money at a park.
Mark: I'm up here in New Hampshire and New England. We support our indoor parks, man, because it keeps us going for six months of the year.
Listen, super inspiring story. I want to encourage everybody to go out there and search on YouTube. We'll put some of your stuff. Let us know. Why don't you send a handful of your favorite moments. We'll make sure we link to those so people can check you out on YouTube.
Do you have any last things you want to say to everybody out there? Inspiring or otherwise?
Aaron: I like to say when life gives you a wheelchair, find a skatepark.
Mark: Perfect. That has to be on a T-shirt, on the bottom of a skateboard. [laughs] That's got to be everywhere, man.
Aaron: "Make Wheelchairs Fun Again, 2020."
Mark: I absolutely love it. I appreciate you jumping on with us today. Man, just keep going. It's so cool what you're doing. I love it.
I hope there is some young kid that is in a wheelchair for the first time, and maybe he's bummed out. He sees one of your videos and realizes, "Hey, wait a minute. I got wheels strapped to me. How can this not be fun." He goes out and takes over the world like you're doing it.
Aaron: I'm not sure if it's inspiration or if I'm a bad influence, but [laughs] it would be awesome to see more kids out there tearing up the park.
Mark: A little bit of both is not bad.
Mark: All right, Aaron. Wheelz, thank you so much. This is Mark Miller, thanking Wheelz and reminding you to keep it accessible.
Announcer: The IAP, Interactive Accessibility Podcast, is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find their Access Matters blog at interactiveaccessibility.com/blog.