The Aaron 'Wheelz' Fotheringham Interview | ‘It’s A Wheelchair, Not A Prison’
We spoke to Nitro Circus Star ‘Wheelz’ about bullies, belief, and becoming an icon
“I'm kind of sick of the stereotype. You know, you're on a wheelchair. It's not a prison." It’s a statement that only confirms my expectation – my fear, even – that singling Aaron Fotheringham out as “other" in any way is wrong and clumsy.
It’s a bright but chilly afternoon in London, and I’m sat in a hotel lobby, chatting to the man known by most as Wheelz. He’s a star of Nitro Circus, up there with Travis Pastrana and Ryan Williams as one of the most popular, and instantly recognisable members of the high octane team. His YouTube videos regularly get viewing figures in the hundreds of thousands. He’s a pioneer, and an innovator. In many ways, a Superhuman. He is also on – not in - a wheelchair.
Born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that affects the spinal chord, Wheelz has never had complete use of his legs. It’s a condition that a lot of people don’t know about. Wheelz is one of them. “I hear little blurbs about what it does or whatever," he tells me when I ask what he knows about it. “It's just who I am. I never really dwelled on it. It's just normal to me, so I never really cared to find out more."
It strikes me as an answer typical of the man, albeit spending only a short amount of time in his company. The softly spoken 24 year old comes across as being equally happy and humble – a million miles away from the brash larger-than-life personality of peers like Travis Pastrana. He’s half way through a day full of press and interviews, and I get the impression that Wheelz is slightly bemused as to what all the fuss is about.
"At school I would get bullied..."
His upbringing may have reinforced this level-headed sense of normality. He was one of six kids growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada, in a household where his parents refused to let his condition set him apart from his siblings. “My parents just treated me like I was any other kid in the family," he says. “If I asked for a drink of water they'd be like, ‘You can go get it yourself!’" He adds, adopting a cartoon voice of a stern father recognisable to children everywhere.
Did he get teased at school for being different? “At school I would get bullied, kids would mess with me. But as many kids that messed with me, I probably had twice as many that supported me." I’m struck again by how familiar this sounds to most of our childhoods.
I wonder how somebody goes from being so normal, to suddenly being Superhuman. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s wrong to consider Wheelz Superhuman. Is this search for something special, something unique a problem with my own perception?
“In school they always tried to put me in adaptive PE," adds Wheelz, “which me and my family always fought. I always wanted to do regular PE, because that's where all of my friends were. So, that's why I like the skatepark, because it's not like I was being treated differently."
That and seeing older, and at the time no doubt cooler, kids skating and riding. He says, “Growing up, I had an older brother that loved extreme sports. He was a BMXer and a skater. I'd go to the skate park and just kind of hang out while he rode the park."
I’m learning to let go of this idea of a Grand Vision held by Wheelz, to somehow show the world that his condition was an ability, not a disability. “But then, one day my brother was like, ‘It’d be really cool if you dropped in on your chair, do you want to try it?’" My dad was there and he gave me the thumbs up, so they helped me get my chair up a four-foot quarter pipe. Then I dropped in and just fell. Multiple times." He adds, chuckling.
“Then, finally, I rode away from one of them and was hooked right then." A broad smile appears across Wheelz’s face as he recalls that first time.
"I'd had this chair for nine months, and I'd totalled it."
While Aaron’s dad clearly gave this new love of dropping in his seal of approval, I ask Wheelz what his mum made of it.
He says: “My parents were nervous, and didn’t want to see their kid get hurt, but they knew they had to let their son chase his dreams, and have fun, and just live. The only issue was when I destroyed my first wheelchair." He looks bashful.
“I'd got this brand new wheelchair, and I started going to the skatepark. Now, you're supposed to have a chair for four or five years before insurance will get you a new one and I had this one for nine months and I totalled it. It was done!"
“But my parents stood behind me, and people from church got me another chair. When I broke wheels, my parents would help me get another set. So my parents went out of their way to help me, and support me."
Generally, the attitude of society has progressed and become more enlightened as to what people on a wheelchair are able to achieve. Even so, Wheelz remains in a league of his own. Surely there can’t have been any peers also on chairs for him to have looked up to, to have copied, to have hung posters on his wall of, as his love of action sports took hold.
“When I started riding, I never saw anyone else." he tells me. “There wasn't a wheelchair person that I looked up to. So, I got most of my inspiration from BMX. I always looked up to Tony Hawk and Travis Pastrana. I always thought: ‘Man, it would be so cool to be a pro athlete, but I can't ride a skateboard, and I’m not going to ride a dirt bike,’" Wheelz laughs.
And so the chair. The first thing to note about the chair is Wheelz’s attitude towards it. From the off, he talks about being on, not in a chair. He talks about riding it. It’s a platform, a vehicle, something which he hoons around skateparks on and off ramps. And, this is no regular wheelchair.
“I’ve been working with Box wheelchairs, which is owned by a friend of mine, Mike Box. We've been producing chairs together." Wheelz pulls his chair over and lifts it with ease into the air to show me. “This one is actually built for parks, but it's also a great everyday chair. It’s lightweight aluminium, and it's got suspension, skate wheels…" I resist the urge to kick the tyres, like somebody eyeing up a new Mondeo, while Wheelz continues to talk me through the construction. “Throughout the process of breaking it, we've made it stronger."
With the passion for action sports well and truly lit, and the support and backing of those closest to him, Wheelz continued to push what he could do on his chair. At just 14 years old, he landed his first backflip on his chair.
“I went to Woodward and they have foam pits so you can try things out for the first time. I was pretty scared, but after a good couple of days of crashing I finally pulled the backflip off. And right there I was like: ‘Wow. Everything's possible.’ That just sparked a whole bunch of progression [for me]."
Of course, in an age of YouTube and social media, it wasn’t long before word spread about this kid on a wheelchair dropping into skateparks and doing backflips. “A little while after my 18th birthday I got an email from a producer of Nitro Circus. He said they'd heard I was trying to jump a big ramp but that nobody would give me permission. And they said: ‘Here at Nitro Circus, we're not going to stop you doing it.’" Even now, recounting the day, a broad smile spreads across Wheelz’s face, and there’s a lilt of wonder in his voice.
"We jumped a school bus 165 feet – that was so scary..."
Today, Wheelz is a Nitro Circus regular, appearing on both live shows, in the numerous films and webisodes. During the Nitro Circus Summer Arena Tour, Wheelz was a central point to the show, so high is his stock. Of course, Nitro Circus seems like an obvious fit for Wheelz: an unconventional family where progression and innovation are all that matters.
In fact, at Nitro Circus, the search for progression often takes various forms, including jumping off the Giganta-a-ramp in anything from rocking horses to whisky barrels. Has there ever been a pressure on Wheelz to try something off his wheelchair?
“I've got suckered into plenty of stunts – like for the 3D movie, I was in a school bus and we jumped 165 feet – that was so scary. But on the ramp I like to stick to my wheelchair. Just because on some of the other things it's nice if you can put your legs down or something, but I don’t really feel like breaking a leg doing some of those things." He laughs.
Surely, even for a veteran like Wheelz, sitting at the top of the Gigant-a-ramp is pretty terrifying. “Fear's a huge part of it. Every time I'm at the top of the Nitro ramp, my heart's going crazy. But I'm pretty confident. I've had a good amount of concussions from doing the jumps and stuff but I've never broken a bone." Wheelz pauses briefly to knock the wooden table between us. “As far as injuries go, I'm definitely pretty blessed. I mean, injuries are unfortunately part of it, but you just can't let that stop you from progressing. It's just like negative thinking: you don't want to focus on the negative. You want to only focus on the direction you want to go."
Pushing forwards, being creative, breaking new ground. It’s not so much a collection of Never Been Dones – although he has plenty, and is still after more (“One trick I really want to land is a double front flip. I’ve attempted it a couple of times, and hopefully I'll be able to get that soon.") – but more of a mission to prove simply that it can be done. I wonder if he sees himself as a role model. After all, it seems at odds against his humble, unassuming nature.
“Ah man, it's definitely cool to have the opportunity to influence people and to pump them up. It is kind of weird though, because I'm just having fun. I'm just chasing my dreams, that childhood dream of being a pro athlete, and it's cool that I'm able to have a positive impact along the way."
It’s clear to me that, whether Wheelz recognises the part he’s played in it or not, he is a role model. The opinion of society is shifting when it comes to what people with disabilities can achieve. Wheelz himself stars in the Channel 4 advert for their upcoming Paralympic coverage from Rio later in the year. We are now encouraged to think of people with disabilities as being Superhuman, and yet, earlier it felt like an uncomfortable tag to apply to somebody that just wants to be normal.
But the truth is, Wheelz isn’t normal. But it’s got nothing to do with his chair. It’s got nothing to do with refusing to let Spina Bifida hold him back. Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham should be thought of as unique for exactly the same reasons as his heroes, Tony Hawk and Travis Pastrana are. An elite band of humans who conquer fear, break new ground, and regularly do the impossible.
People who not only fly higher, go faster, and do more than those around them, who not only shape the future of the sports they’re in, but who also put in the sweat and the blood to make it all happen, week after week, day after day. This is why the man they call Wheelz is Superhuman.