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How Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham Redefined What’s Possible in a Wheelchair

“Nobody has done what I do before me.”

The incredibly inspiring story of Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham and how he invented wheelchair motocross, set world records, and inspired generations
Credit-Aaron Fotheringham/Joker Mag

Picture this: you take a deep breath after briefly gazing around a packed arena. Thousands of spectators hold their breath in nervous anticipation.

You close your eyes for a moment before dropping down a 27-foot-high quarter-pipe at 21 miles per hour.

Now you’re racing towards the other end of the pipe, a mere 50 feet away – the same length as the Hollywood sign in LA.

When you reach the other side, you complete an insane front flip to the crowd’s delight…in your wheelchair.

For Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, that’s just another day.

He tours with Nitro Circus, the popular action sports troupe.

The riders include a roster of dirtbikes, skateboards, and even a scooter here and there. But Wheelz is one of the most popular riders, treating the crowds to harrowing tricks on daunting ramps of extreme heights.

All in his wheelchair.

How do you go from being diagnosed with a condition that leaves you with little use of your legs to a 5-time Guinness World Record Holder?

By looking at your wheelchair as a tool, not an obstacle.

Aaron was born with spina bifida, a central nervous system birth defect that affects about 1 in 2,000 babies in the U.S. each year. Spina bifida happens when a child’s spine and spinal cord fail to develop properly.

As a baby forms in the womb, each has what’s known as the neural tube. The neural tube is located in a baby embryo. It eventually becomes the brain and spinal cord.

In normal births, the neural tube forms at an early stage of pregnancy. By the 30th day after a baby is born, it closes.

Babies with spina bifida have a neural tube that doesn’t close like it’s supposed to. There are three types of spina bifida, ranging from most severe to least severe. 

Out of the three, Aaron was born with the most severe type, Myelomeningocele, which causes a loss of movement in the legs and a loss of bladder control in the worst cases.

His birth parents abandoned him at the hospital after learning about his condition.

A quote from Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham: “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."

Aaron was later adopted at that Las Vegas hospital by Steve and Kaylene Fotheringham. He was one of six children they adopted. 

By all accounts, he grew up like a normal kid.

“My parents just treated me like I was any other kid in the family. If I asked for a drink of water they’d be like, ‘You can go get it yourself!’”

He learned to roll over, sit up like other kids, and crawl, all on schedule for his age. 

As a child, Aaron tried everything other kids could do. He would even rock a Superman cape, picturing himself flying as he shuffled along the floor with his crutches.

His first supportive devices were a walker and then crutches. They weren’t easy to manage, but he took to them quickly.

When he got his wheelchair, everything changed.

His older brother, Brian, was a big BMX fan growing up. When Brian got a bike, Aaron would watch him try out tricks at a local skatepark. 

One day, Brian challenged him to try something out in his wheelchair.

Not one to back down from a challenge from a sibling, he decided to drop in on a skateboard ramp. He gave it a try after a nod of approval from his dad.

He fell hard.

Then he got back up, dusted himself off, and fell hard again. This happened quite a few times.

Before Aaron could finally figure out how to stop falling flat on his face, he was addicted.

His journey into this new world required new tools.

Standard wheelchairs aren’t designed to withstand the impact of landing at skateparks. Aaron destroyed his first wheelchair after just nine months. The insurance company wouldn’t replace it.

A wheelchair is typically used for five years before needing a replacement. But that’s if it’s used in a standard way, not how Aaron used it.

Luckily, his church rallied around the budding adventurer without him knowing and helped buy him a new wheelchair.

He later became friends with a local manufacturer who helped design his first wheelchairs – built to withstand the abuse he was determined to give them.

Aaron became a regular at the skateparks and earned the nickname “Wheelies” from his middle school friends. He was always cranking his version of a wheelie in his modified wheelchair.

Aaron took to the nickname but shortened it to “Wheelz”.

He gradually went from simply landing safely to grinding rails, spinning, and hand planting.

In July of 2006, he landed his first backflip.

After a video of this first-ever wheelchair backflip went viral, his entire world changed. He traveled to Europe to perform a few shows and even got sponsored by a German tire company.

Wheelz was officially a pro skater.

Unlike the bikers and skaters he admired, no one else was doing what he was doing. 

“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”.

His obsession with pushing the limits of what he could do led to his big breakthrough. After putting the world on notice with his backflip, he aimed to see what else was possible.

In 2010, he landed the first-ever double backflip.

After watching the X Games and seeing bikers on a mega ramp – a ghastly 50 foot drop – Wheelz wanted to try it out.

But since he was in a wheelchair, everyone thought he was crazy.

Aaron’s videos caught the attention of Travis Pastrana and Nitro Circus, traveling daredevils who thrive on pushing the limits. They offered him the chance to audition and try out the ramp.

Wheelz impressed the crew on his first attempt, trying a backflip on the mega ramp into a foam pit. He was accepted onto the team immediately and joined them in touring shortly after.

Aaron was an instant hit with the crowds as well.

Escalating cheers transform into deafening roars when Wheelz is at the top of the ramp.

Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham quote that says: “My doctor said I wasn’t going to be able to sit up on my own or do anything. I think just from a young age that was always in the back of my mind like, ‘Ok, I gotta prove I can do more than that’”.

Wheelz just celebrated his 14th anniversary with Nitro Circus last year. He’s still just as eager to shred any obstacle or ramp.

And he’s used his fame for more than just self-pleasure.

In 2016, he was part of the opening ceremony in Brazil to kickstart the 2016 Paralympics. His front flip through an Olympic ring brought new attention to wheelchair motocross – the term he coined for this unique sport.

He’s also traveled globally, speaking to thousands of kids with spina bifida.

He teaches them how to shift their thinking about being in a wheelchair. Wheelz mentors these eager, future daredevils on how to use their wheelchairs as the ultimate tool.

Aaron’s influence on the younger generations inspired a Hot Wheels toy version of himself. It’s another way he’s found to push the limits of possibility as someone in a wheelchair.

Life for Wheelz today looks more normal than his doctors predicted.

He got married in 2018 and, last November, had a set of twin boys.

These days, he takes them along in his truck when headed to shred at local Vegas skateparks. 

“My doctor said I wasn’t going to be able to sit up on my own or do anything. I think just from a young age that was always in the back of my mind like, ‘Ok, I gotta prove I can do more than that’”.

It would’ve been easy to understand if he sulked at the unfair hand he was dealt at birth.

A severe form of spina bifida left his legs mostly useless and he was abandoned by his birth parents who didn’t want to deal with it.

But Wheelz refuses to be a victim and continues to redefine what most call a disadvantage.

“I didn’t think ‘even though I am in a wheelchair.’ It was ‘I have this wheelchair.’ It wasn’t like a ball and chain. It was an advantage almost. I saw it as I can go fast everywhere. Like going through an airport, no one is faster than me.”

RELATED: We Interviewed The First Man in a Wheelchair to Complete the Death Road

Written By

Rodney is a freelance writer and alum of the University of Georgia. He grew up in the Atlanta area but now resides in Tampa, FL. His interests include sports, writing, reading, and talking smack about his favorite sports teams.

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