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Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham is perched at the top of a 50-foot “giganta” ramp in the middle of Madison Square Garden. His wheels are pointed down the precipitous slope toward a gap the length of three parallel-parked cars, which he intends to jump. The crowd is going nuts. They’ve never seen anything like this before.
“Aaron, I just wanna know,” asked the announcer. “What are you doing up here, buddy?”
“Well, when I asked you guys for a wheelchair accessible ramp, this is not what I had in mind,” Wheelz said.
This megaramp is about as far away from wheelchair accessible as you can get. But the joke is part of his shtick. This is a guy whose license plate on his souped-up truck reads “LEGLESS.”
“Well since you’re up here, you gotta do something,” said the announcer. “You know the rule: you can’t take the stairs. What do you have in mind?”
“Well, I was thinking, if you guys get really loud and follow me on Instagram, I was going to do a front flip,” said Wheelz.
“A front flip," cried the announcer. "Do you want to see a front flip from this guy tonight?”
Now, anyone doing a front flip off of anything is pretty impressive. But it’s all the more spectacular when the person doing the trick is buckled into to a neon-green wheelchair.
Wheelz, 22, has spina bifida and has used a wheelchair since he was in grade school.
“I’m not paralyzed,” Wheelz said. “I have spina bifida, and it affects my back and blah, blah, blah. All that boring stuff I’ve never really read.”
He’s also an adrenaline junkie and an action sports nut. If it involves big tires, big air, or big consequences, Wheelz is into it.
“I love adrenaline, you know, even before skateparks. Like I’d definitely knock on people’s doors and roll away as quick as I could with my friends.”
Wheelz does what he calls WCMX, or wheelchair motocross. It’s like BMX, except with four wheels instead of two. Oh, and a disability thrown in just to keep it interesting.
Wheelz practically invented the sport. There are other wheelchair users out there doing WCMX, but Wheelz is the undisputed king. He’s gone bigger and jumped farther than anyone. You ever see an average guy in a wheelchair do a double back flip? No? That’s because only Wheelz can do that.
Wheelz got his start in action sports in Las Vegas after a trip to the local skatepark with his older brother. He was eight at the time.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one to drop into a skatepark on a wheelchair," Wheelz said. "But I didn’t see anyone before me. I just looked up to BMXers and X-Games, and I was like, 'Wow I could do that.' And my brother helped me get to the skatepark on my wheelchair and pretty much pushed me into a bowl. I mean from then on I was hooked on it. It was a fun challenge, and I just fell in love with the sport.”
The angles of bowls aren't meant for someone who is seated.
“The first couple times I went down I face-planted and hurt my wrists, but he kept helping me back up. And then, like, after a couple tries, I rolled away from it.”
And before Wheelz even hit puberty, he was a fixture at his local skatepark on his wheelchair. Wheelz uses the term “on a wheelchair” rather than “in a wheelchair.” It might sound like semantics, but for a guy who doesn’t feel confined by his chair, but rather liberated by it, the words make a difference.
Soon, the skatepark became too easy. Wheelz needed a bigger challenge.
“After a while of putting in hours, you start progressing and doing bigger tricks and bigger drop-ins. Then I did a 360 and that got boring. Then I wanted to do a backflip. The kids at the skatepark were saying you should learn a backflip on your wheelchair. I think they were messing with me, but I took it serious.”
So Wheelz went to an action sports camp and practiced flipping into a foam pit.
“And in two days of going to that camp, I landed the first wheelchair backflip in history. And then I was just like, 'Whoa, this is fun.'”
That all leads us to now, with Wheelz touring the world with Nitro Circus Live — a sort of extreme variety show for action sports led by motocross legend Travis Pastrana. Wheelz is an integral part of the spectacle, which also features some of the world’s best skateboarders, BMX riders and daredevils of all kinds. Think people jumping monster ramps in Igloo coolers and Barbie cars.
Of all the athletes hucking themselves off of tall things — and hucking is the term the kids use — none gets as much applause as Wheelz.
“Hey, folks, Wheelz has just casually said, 'Do you want to see a front flip?'” continued the announcer. “Now I’ve been telling you how tough this guy is and what an inspiration he is.”
Then the announcer tells the crowd how Wheelz knocked himself unconscious trying this trick before.
“He used to do it off a 30-foot gap. But now that he’s in New York City, he wants to do it for you for the very first time over a much bigger 50-foot gap. So New York, do you want to see a kid on a wheelchair throw a front flip?”
And with that, Wheelz descends down the five-story ramp. Fireworks spray out of his specially designed wheelchair as he picks up speed. He hits the lip of the ramp and tucks his head. By some miracle of physics, his wheelchair — named Rolanda — follows. He flies over the gap and lands with a bounce, wheels down on the other side. A giant air bag catches him before he hits the arena wall. The crowd loses it.
It’s equal parts breathtaking and unnerving watching Wheelz soar so high above the ground. Wheelchairs are most definitely not supposed to do this. But don’t try to tell Wheelz that.
“A wheelchair’s got a misconception or something because I feel like people are always trying to put a limit or stereotype along with it," he said. "And that’s what I’m trying to break. Like yeah, I’m on a wheelchair, but I can go down a 50-foot ramp.”
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