Lone Peak Park hosts YouTube star Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham as he teaches wheelchair tricks
Jan 14, 2020 03:10PM
● By City Journals Staff
Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham shows off some of his tricks at Lone Peak Park. (Deserae Dorton/City Journals)
By Deserae Dorton | [email protected]
When 10-year-old Matt Nadauld saw Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham do extreme maneuvers on his wheelchair, he didn’t think himself capable of anything of the kind. “When I first saw Wheelz on YouTube,” Matt said, “I thought, that’s insane! But after today, it was really fun.”
Matt, who was born with spina bifida, is referring to the September Intermountain Spina Bifida Support group, which hosted the Nitro Circus and internet sensation. The 28-year-old professional wheelchair motocross (WCMX) performer spent several hours on a fall day at Lone Peak Park with the group. He taught any child in a wheelchair interested in getting comfortable going down the steep bowls and ramps of the skate park. Though Matt had a lot of fun trying things out, he wants to make sure you know it’s not easy. “It’s extremely hard. You have to go really fast and it’s kind of really scary.”
As Matt gave the skate park routes a try, his dad wasn’t far behind, ready to jump in and stop his son’s speeding wheelchair and give him a running start when needed. “It’s fun to watch him do something he enjoys,” said Adam Nadauld. “He has a smile on his face the whole time. I’m never upset as a dad to see my kid happy.” Like most parents who are new to having a child with a disability, when Matt was first born, there were many unknowns about how much their son could do, and how fragile he would be. “We’ve been watching Matt in a wheelchair since he was one and a half,” Nadauld continued. “We were probably nervous many years ago, but at this point we’re not nervous at all because we’ve seen him do amazing things and he’s in as much control in his wheelchair as you are walking, so it’s no issue at this point. It was a little scary a long time ago, but not now.”
Ashley Pedersen, the group’s organizer, invited Fotheringham to come to Utah after meeting him in his hometown of Las Vegas. She was touched by how generous he was with his time as he interacted with her daughter who has spina bifida. “He played with Penny, my 6-year-old, and Whitney, her friend who’s 5, for two hours! He was helping them do wheelies and all this stuff — he was just amazing. Penny was so scared to do all the stuff but the second she saw him, she just wanted to try it all.”
When Pedersen suggested Fotheringham come offer this same experience to other kids with spina bifida in her community, she recalled his response was, “Yeah! Do you think people would come?” Pedersen laughed at this memory looking around the Lone Peak skate park filled with dozens of children and adults in wheelchairs. She found when she put feelers out about having the event, there was a lot of enthusiasm among the wheelchair community. “It was great to see how many people were enthusiastic about it and really wanted to be a part of today.”
Beyond Fotheringam’s appearance, organizations who support the spina bifida community were in attendance like the National Ability Center, Salt Lake County Adaptive Recreation and more. Next to the skate park, the basketball court was set up with wheelchairs specifically designed for basketball that participants could try out. With all of these extras, it’s no wonder the Spina Bifida Support Group morphed into “Wheelchair Palooza,” which is what the sign said on the chain-link fence as you approached the skate park.
Pedersen called the day a test run. Beyond having Fotheringham in attendance, she invited adults in wheelchairs who she was impressed with and others who were recommended to her and asked them to come to the event as mentors.
“The whole day was meant to be people in wheelchairs teaching people in wheelchairs,” Pedersen said. There were several activities for the families to take part in: the skate park, wheelchair basketball and adaptive bikes.
After the activities were over, the group reconvened at a pavilion at the park for a discussion led by a panel made up of the mentors. Several from the panel agreed that the way they were raised was a big part of them now being independent, thriving adults. “They said how their parents didn’t baby them or try to do everything for them,” Pedersen said. “They made them figure out how to do stuff and made them be independent, they didn’t treat them differently than their siblings.” Another powerful moment was when the panel discussed dealing with hard days. One panelist admitted that sometimes she throws her wheelchair across the room out of frustration, then picks it up later and gets on with life. “They talked about how it’s totally fine to cry and feel depressed,” recalled Pedersen. “You don’t always have to be strong.”
Kyle Marchant of Midvale was among the mentors. He discovered Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham on YouTube a few years ago. When he saw the wheelchair-bound pro doing tricks in his chair, his eyes were opened and he knew it was something he wanted to get into. Soon he flew to Texas to the Rise Adaptive Sports World Championship of wheelchair motocross (WCMX.) He soon realized there was a whole community of people in wheelchairs doing competitive tricks.
Feeling inspired by the experience, when he got home he started to try out some ramps at a local skate ramp and got the bug. He did some research and found there was no community in Utah for WCMX. “So I formed the Alliance of WCMX of Utah about July of 2016,” Marchant said. “I keep getting more and more interest as the years go by.”
The Alliance of WCMX of Utah is available to anyone in a wheelchair who is interested in learning WCMX techniques. His ultimate goal is to have enough people to form a competitive team and eventually bring the world championship to Utah.
Marchant and Pedersen agree they’d like to make the day a tradition and Fotheringham welcomes the opportunity. This type of thing is one of his favorite things to do. He was delighted with the turnout in the Sandy park, which was around 300 people. “This was one of the biggest WCMX workshops, I’d say, that has ever been done,” Fotheringham said. “No better place than here in Utah!” Fotheringham loves seeing the transformation that happens as he introduces kids to the skate park. “They come in and they’re a little timid at first and then after they drop in a couple times, they’re completely changed — like a switch is flipped. And the wheelchair is just like a bike or a skateboard, you know, it’s just a way to have fun at that point.”
WCMX, of which Fotheringham is the groundbreaking star, is a growing sport. “It’s like BMX, but with a wheelchair,” Fotheringham said. “We’re taking tricks from BMX and skate and applying them to the wheelchair.”
There is a WCMX world competition every year, though Fotheringham is the only one speeding down the large air ramps. The majority of the WCMX community are working on their speed and tricks at the skate parks. The most recent world competition was in August in Germany, at which Fotheringham took first place.
Everywhere Fotheringham went at the skate park, he was swarmed first by kids in wheelchairs, then came their parents to take pictures and shake his hand. “I don’t think Wheelz realized how popular he is in Utah,” Pedersen said. “He has a huge following here!” She followed this up commenting on his humility. “He’s such a modest, great guy, so approachable, and so not assuming. I told him I thought we could get at least 100 people there, then I saw the numbers continue to go up and I was like, wow! He was a huge draw.”
Pedersen appreciates the power of the spina bifida community. She continues to see the benefits for her daughter. From the play group her daughter participates in at Shriners Hospital for Children with children her age in wheelchairs and with the same condition to activities like Wheelchair Palooza, meeting adults in wheelchairs showing her she can do more. As she contrasts this with well-meaning able-bodied adults, she has seen that “people in wheelchairs teaching people in wheelchairs” always has the bigger impact.
“It’s just really cool to be a part of this community and all these awesome people,” Pedersen said. “I don’t know that I would know them otherwise, but fate has brought us all together, which is really cool.”
Nadauld was also in awe of the impact the day at the skate park was having. “Look at all these kids out here today,” he said as he and his son took a break on the side of the skate park. “None of these kids would have done this today. Wheelz is showing them that they can!”
Learn more about Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham at facebook.com/aaronwheelz
Connect with the Intermountain Spina Bifida Support Group at facebook.com/utahspinabifida