Commentary

Fotheringham flips over wheelchair 'hard-core sitting' craze

Originally Published: February 7, 2008
By Tom Rinaldi | ESPN

LAS VEGAS -- It is a place that worships momentum and mocks inertia, craves acceleration and condemns lethargy. All angle and pitch, slope and slant, it is a place of dry pools and concrete runways, of mad ramps and half-pipes.

No one ever told Aaron Fotheringham it was a place he shouldn't enter, or didn't belong in. After all, he did the same things -- spinning and rising, falling and crashing - every other skateboarder and BMX rider did.

Aaron Fotheringham had wheels.

His were just a little different than the others.

"People call it wheelchair skateboarding," he says with a shake of the head, "and it's like, oh man, it's its own sport. It's hard-core sitting."


One of six adopted children, Fotheringham was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the neural tubes and development of the spinal cord. It is a birth defect that occurs in seven of every 10,000 births in the United States, but it didn't change the Fotheringhams' view of their little boy when he joined their family. If there were unknown challenges ahead, there would be strength to meet them.

"I remember dancing with him in the kitchen and holding him when he was 3 years old, and thinking, 'I'm going to have to carry this kid,'" his father Steven says. "Whatever hardships, I'll carry him."

Initially using braces to walk, Aaron got his first wheelchair when he was 3. It sat among his toys, and that was how he viewed it: as a vehicle for fun. By the time he was 8, after a series of painful hip operations, he was in the wheelchair most of the time.

[+] EnlargeAaron Fotheringham
AP Photo/Jane KalinowskyWhen Aaron Fotheringham rides the ledge, as he did here at the Vegas Valley Amateur Skatepark Series last year, it is, indeed, hardcore sitting.
From the start, he saw its advantages more than its limits.

That's why, when his older brother Brian invited him to wheel into a local skate park seven years ago, he didn't hesitate.

"A bunch of skaters helped me up to the top of the ramp, and practically just pushed me over on to my face," Aaron recalls with a laugh.

But he got up, and got back into the chair. He kept falling, kept getting up, kept trying. Soon enough, he was racing around the park and wondering how to spin and jump.

"Just being included," he says, recalling the feeling of that first day, "and saying, 'Hey, I may be able to go somewhere with this.'"

Has he ever.


With a motocross helmet, elbows pads and a seat belt, Aaron spent as much as 30 hours a week at skate parks across Las Vegas, earning the nickname that has stayed with him to this day: Wheels.

Joe Wichert, extreme sports coordinator for the city, was the first to invite him to join local competitions, side by side with skateboarders and BMX riders. Wichert understood from the beginning that he was witnessing something utterly new: an athlete creating his own sport.

"I was completely blown away by it," Wichert says. "I couldn't believe the drive and the determination that he had in his eyes to do this … it touched me that he had this kind of love for the sport and he didn't let his disability get in the way."

[+] EnlargeAaron Fotheringham
AP Photo/Jane KalinowskyThink you can't 'catch air' in a wheelchair? Fotheringham would have you think again.
As the crowds grew for his competitions, Aaron became driven to create new tricks. That's when he and his friends came up with the idea.

"I told my mom that people keep coming up to me and saying that it would be cool if I could do a backflip from my wheelchair," he says, smiling.

That summer, he spent a week working on that -- and almost nothing else -- at an extreme sports camp in California. Roaring down a ramp, building speed, hitting an upslope and then going airborne, trying to flip his wheelchair completely over his head, he crashed into the camp's foam pits over and over. Every day, fellow campers gathered to watch.

Then, on July 13, 2006, the night before he was set to come home, he took off one more time. When he landed, as far as he knows, he became the first person in history to complete a wheelchair backflip.

And it was on tape.

"A flood of skateboarders and bikers came over and were congratulating me," he says, his smile shining at the memory. "It just felt so good."

Shortly after he landed, the footage was posted on the Internet and became a sensation. The tape has led to a celebrity Aaron never imagined, and to his new relationship with wheelchair manufacturer Colours In Motion, a company that provides him with a specialized chair, mechanical support and other equipment to keep pushing the limits.

Breaking Barriers

ESPN's series on sports pioneers called "Breaking Barriers" began on Tuesday with the chronicle of Willie O'Ree, who broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League 50 years ago, and continued Wednesday with a story about Kit DesLauriers, who skied the highest peaks on each of the globe's seven continents.

On Thursday, ESPN featured 16-year-old Aaron Fotheringham, who suffers from spina bifida but became the first wheelchair athlete to successfully land a back flip in the sport he calls "hard-core sitting." And it concluded with the Peggy Llewellyn story about the first female minority to compete in Pro-Stock motorcycle drag-racing.

Breaking Barriers: O'Ree ESPN Video | Rinaldi: Breaking the ice
Rinaldi: DesLauriers's seven summits on skis
Breaking Barriers: Fotheringham ESPN Video | Rinaldi: How he rolls
Breaking Barriers: Llewellyn ESPN Video | Rinaldi: How he rolls

He recently flew to Europe for a promotional tour that included a stop at a school in Germany for disabled children, providing a moment Aaron's mother will not forget.

"This little boy who can't speak any English comes up to me," Kaylene Fotheringham recalls. "I don't think that he knew I was Aaron's mom, and he holds up this poster to me and he says, 'Mein Aaron autograph! Mein Aaron autograph!' and I remember just sitting there and bawling."

She stops as she recalls the scene, her eyes wet from the memory.

"All these kids were in wheelchairs and they were so inspired … and this is when it came to me: Aaron can do so much for other people."


Now 16, with the broad shoulders of a football player and the scraped knuckles from his own sport, Fotheringham straddles railings, flies off ramps, does stationary spins and, of course, lands the backflip.

He also continues to touch others.

On this late January day, he is pushing 4-year-old Zachary Puddy Siggens around a skate park in Las Vegas. They carve around the macadam, up onto a ramp, and then down the other side, their helmets shining below the morning sky. The laughter coming from Zach's voice, the thrill lighting his face, suggest a joy so deep, this seems like it's one of the greatest moments of his life so far.

And it is.

After suffering a stroke at just 18 months old, Zach has made an extraordinary recovery, according to his mother, Linda. Still, he is a little boy in a wheelchair, who wants to run and play and explore. He wants, as Aaron once did, to be included. When Linda saw the video of Aaron on the Internet, she traveled from her home in Seattle so her son could meet the teenager he has come to idolize in the span of just a few days.

[+] EnlargeAaron Fotheringham
AP Photo/Jane KalinowskyThey call him 'Wheels,' and he keeps on rolling . . . and flipping.
Their connection is immediate and real, as Zach's laughter echoes across the contours of the park, his eyes never leaving Aaron's dashing chair.

Watching it all in front of her, Linda Puddy wipes away her tears.

"I didn't know what to do until I saw Aaron, and then I knew," she says. "It gives Zachary a direction to go."

"He's a hero," she says, watching the teenager pushing her son down a small slope. "Zach thinks that Aaron flies."

For Aaron Fotheringham, it is a life not only on wheels, but wings, as he soars through the air, his spokes catching the sun.

Tom Rinaldi is an ESPN correspondent based in the New York City Bureau, contributing to "SportsCenter," "Outside the Lines," "College GameDay" and "NFL Countdown."

Tom Rinaldi

SportsCenter, OTL, College GameDay and NFL Countdown correspondent
Tom Rinaldi is an ESPN correspondent based in the New York, contributing to SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, Outside the Lines Nightly, College GameDay and NFL Countdown. He also appears as a reporter, contributing features and interviews from many of ESPN's top event productions, including golf and tennis' major events.