Extreme athlete uses wheelchair to defy gravity

As CNN began setting up our on-camera interview with Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, our cameraman asked, “Do your wheels lock? Just for the interview.”

The response, “brakes are for people that want to go slow,” sums up the man known as “Wheelz”: quick and always moving forward.

Aaron was born with spina bifida, a spinal defect that left him without much control of his legs. But he never let it slow him down.

“I was crawling all over the house as a little kid. I bombed down the stairs head-first just like any other kid. I just kind of skipped that whole ‘learning to walk’ stage.”

As a child, “Wheelz” started out on crutches and kept up with the other kids, even in PE class.

“When it was time to run the mile in class, I would do it on my crutches.”

But as his friends began picking up skateboards and riding bikes, Fotheringham had trouble keeping up. A wheelchair helped him pick up the pace. But he credits his unique family with making him an athlete by literally pushing him over the edge.

Taking the drop

Aaron is one of six kids in the Fotheringham family — all of them adopted.

“My biological parents were a little worried about dealing with the kid with spina bifida,” he said. “My adoptive parents are truly champions for taking on all that responsibility.”

Although he spent a lot of his childhood in hospitals recovering from 23 surgeries, his life at home was full of action.

“Growing up in my house, my older brother, Brian, and I, we just loved watching X Games and were big fans of all the action sports,” Fotheringham recalled. “(Brian) was a skater and rode bikes, and I always looked up to him. Eventually, he took me to a skate park and kind of peer pressured me in.”

“Dropping in” at a skate park for the first time can be daunting at any age. Fotheringham was doing it for the first time at 8 years old — in a wheelchair.

“It was it was definitely a fear that I’ve never experienced. I remember the first time I ever dropped in. I was just pretty terrified,” he said. “I remember falling on my wrists and kind of hurting those.”

‘Wheelz’ of steel

After the rough start, however, Fotheringham began nailing his drops and picking up speed. That first day at the skate park sparked what would become an “obsession.”

“When I saw that my wheelchair was kind of my mode of transportation throughout the park, it kind of ignited something in me and just made me realize, like, ‘Hey, I could do this, too.’ “

Having grown up idolizing skaters and bikers, Fotheringham began putting his own dreams into motion.

“I hadn’t seen anyone on a chair at that time,” he said. “I would just try to mimic what I saw the bikes and skateboards do.”

Very quickly, the ramps got bigger, the rides got faster, and the tricks got harder.

In 2005, Fotheringham began riding in BMX and skateboarding competitions, which helped turn his hobby into a serious athletic pursuit.

“They weren’t giving me pity points,” he said. “They knew if I was having a good riding day, and so they would judge me accordingly.”

By 2010, he landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for completing the world’s first backflip in a wheelchair.

Fotheringham is now a three-time WCMX champion, which is a mix of skateboarding and BMX riding for wheelchair users. He also travels around the world doing trick shows as a performer in the action sports collective Nitro Circus.

“My wheelchair has taken me all around the world to do competition,” he said. “With a wheelchair, yeah, there’s hard times, and there’s struggles, but it can open so many doors that weren’t there before. I’ve always said that my wheelchair has taken me further than my shoes ever could.”