Aaron Fotheringham: skating ability beyond disability

A tanned teenager lies back in his wheelchair and touches the ground with his hand (Barry Bland/courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)
“When you say you are ‘in’ a wheelchair it’s like saying that you are confined to it. I’m ‘on’ my wheelchair, I ride it like a skater ‘on’ his skateboard.” (Barry Bland/courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)

The 18 year old Aaron Fotheringham is pioneering a sport which he calls “hardcore sitting”. His back flip earned him a place in “Guinness World Records”. Even as a baby and small child, he always wanted to test his limitations never accepting the idea of disability.

Aaron Fotheringham gains speed rolling down the BMX ramp until he hits an incline that propels him through a back flip. A typical scene in a skate park somewhere in Las Vegas.  But wait: Aaron doesn’t use a skateboard or BMX bike to do his tricks. He sticks a perfect four-wheeled landing with his highly robust wheelchair.

Although he’s been using a wheelchair since childhood, Aaron does not feel “disabled” and is rather keen on semantics: “When you say you are ‘in’ a wheelchair it’s like saying that you are confined to it. I’m ‘on’ my wheelchair, I ride it like a skater ‘on’ his skateboard.”

The Fotheringhams: Parents, Kaylene und Steve, are surrounded by their six adoptive children (Picture: courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)
Steve and Kaylene Fotheringham have adopted six children, one of them is Aaron (Picture: courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)

Tough diagnosis

18 year old Aaron Fotheringham has performed in Germany, Korea, the Czech Republic and across the United States. His back flip earned him a place in “Guinness World Records”. That’s quite an accomplishment for a kid who doctors said wouldn’t be able to sit independently.

Aaron is born in 1992 with spina bifida. Spina bifida  (latin: split spine") is a developmental birth defect caused by the incomplete closure of the embryonic neural tube. The effect on the newly born baby depends on the gravity of the spinal chord injury. In Aaron’s case, his hips are too shallow for his legs to stay in their hip sockets.

Meet the Fotheringhams

Despite his challenging diagnosis, his adoptive parents, Steve and Kaylene Fotheringham, did not hesitate when they first saw him in the hospital when he was 2 months old. „We just decided, ’Well, somebody has got to take care of him, why not us?’ ” Kaylene said. The Fotheringhams, a generous family with five additional adoptive children, gave Aaron comfort and protection but also a lot of space to develop.

Encouraged by his parents to do anything he wanted – including sliding down the stairs headfirst – Aaron met most milestones at about the same pace as his peers and could walk with crutches. He even wrote a couple of stories about “Crutch Boy”, the hero who would always save the day. Yet, Crutch Boy was not Peter Pan and started growing. When it became obvious that neither his legs nor his arms could support his weight, he transitioned into a wheelchair. This opened new adventures for Aaron.

A boy in a wheelchair drives over the edge of a halfpipe which propels him into a back flip (Barry Bland/courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)
“The more I rode, the better I became, though I have to admit that the process involved falling in every way possible.” (Barry Bland/courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)

Debut in the skater park

Aaron’s elder brother Brian would spend most of his free time at the Pro park, a popular skater venue in Las Vegas. Aaron accompanied his brother to marvel at the daring acrobatics of the aficionados. One day, when he was eight, Brian and his friends encouraged him to roll down a shallow ramp. It was a scary first ride, and indeed, Aaron crashed hands first. But soon, he was hooked. Six months later, after endless sessions of hard trying and training, he accomplished his first trick – lifting up one of the back wheels while traversing a bump, which he now describes as “lame”.

“The more I rode, the better I became, though I have to admit that the process involved falling in every way possible,” says Aaron. Following his own mantra – “Don’t be an idiot!” – he always wore a full face helmet and never attempted tricks he didn’t think he was ready to master. The only real problem in the beginning was the chair, which he broke not long after starting his new hobby.

Aaron’s first sponsor

„The insurance company would not replace the wheelchair,“ says Kaylene. Since the Fortheringhams were not able to raise 3000 to 5000 dollars, they patched up the broken chair as best they could and told Aaron he couldn’t take it to the skate park again. That changed when friends raised the money to buy him a new wheelchair – this time a Colours wheelchair that supposedly was strong enough to withstand the punishment. When Aaron performed his first airborne 180 out of the box, Steve sensed an opportunity, videotaped the performance and sent it to the company.

A boy on a wheelchair and another boy on a BMX bike are doing tricks in a skate park (Barry Bland/courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)
Aaron is a serious competitor for the other skaters and BMX riders (Barry Bland/courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)

A letter soon arrived from John Box, founder of Colours ‘N Motion, encouraging him to call him directly whenever they needed anything. The company has sponsored him since.  With his new supermodels – four wheels and suspension – Aaron did his first back flip 2006. Two years later – Aaron had already got his high-school diploma, he was able to spend most of his time in the skate park and would sometimes train up to ten hours. He achieved his next milestone, a mind-boggling double back flip, in 2010. Posting his tricks in facebook propelled him into sudden fame. Two interviews at CNN were enough to make Aaron a world-wide known sports figure. „After the CNN interviews my facebook site went crazy,“ says Aaron.

A boy leaning on a BMX bike apparently talks to a boy in a wheelchair.
Aaron discusses with a BMX driver in Las Vegas’ ProPark (photo: Lytle / courtesy by aaronfotheringham.com)

Inspiration for disabled children

After his “10 minutes of fame” life has changed for Aaron. With his mother helping with scheduling and information, he has had the opportunity to travel within the US as well as internationally. He has attended summer camps for disabled children as a coach and mentor. His own firm “Hardcoresitting” is in the starting phase. „I know that I can be an inspiration for disabled kids,“ says Aaron. The message I want to convey to kids and adults is very simple: Always test your boundaries and don’t let the ‘disability’ restrain your capacities and possibilities. “If a magician would come up to me with a magic wand and ask ‘Do you want to walk?’ I would ask him back ‘Why should I walk when I can roll?.”

Text: Michel Benedetti

Translation: Michel Benedetti