"Being in a wheelchair never held me back" says Nitro Circus' Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham, heading to Ipswich's Foxhall Stadium on June 25
Confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida since he was seven, Nitro Circus' extreme sports star Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham tells entertainment writer Wayne Savage being in disabled isn't the end of the road - it's just a different way of getting down it.
Ever since his older brother encouraged him to drop into a quarter pipe ramp at his local skate park when he was eight, Wheelz has never looked back.
“I crashed the first couple of times but eventually I rolled away from a drop in and I was hooked,” says the action sports athelete, heading to a skate park for another interview when I call.
Hitting them still brings a lot of joy to him now. It was always a way he could bond with his older brother and dad. There was always something new he was dying to try when he got there too, he laughs.
“For me, the wheelchair was never something that held me back. It was always a positive. I never really thought I can’t do something, I just had to do it a little different and find a way to make things work for me,” says Wheelz, inspiring fans around the globe with his world-first tricks adapted from skateboarding and BMX, which he dubs WCMX.
“Being in a wheelchair, people always have this stereotype (in their minds) and try to set limits but it’s important to not let any of that hold you up or slow you down; keep moving towards your goals.”
Growing up he was always into the X Games and loved watching it on TV. But it was his brother who did all the extreme sports stuff like BMXing and skating.
“I always dreamed of being an extreme athlete but I never knew how it would happen or that it would with me in a wheelchair. At the time I was just dropping in and having fun.”
When he was 18, one of Nitro Circus’ producers invited him to come try their big ramp. It was one of the best emails he ever got.
“Before even thinking about how big that ramp was going to be I said ‘yeah’,” laughs Wheelz, the only person in the world to hit Nitro’s famous Giganta Ramp in a wheelchair. “I just went out and survived, so they were like ‘okay, you’re on the tour after just one jump’. That was awesome.”
He hopes the thousands of people who see him perform will start to see the wheelchair in a more positive light.
“I get a lot of people come up to me and apologising I have to use the wheelchair. I really enjoy being on a wheelchair and it has given me a lot of opportunities, so it’s not something that’s a negative. I just want to help people see a wheelchair isn’t the end of the road, it’s just a different way to get down the road.”
Over the years he’s honed his skills at skate parks across America; challenging himself to try harder and harder tricks like carving (making a wide turn without the wheels sliding sideways), grinding (sliding along an object), power-sliding, hand-planting (balancing on your hand after reaching the top of a ramp) and spinning to name a few.
In 2006 he landed the world’s first wheelchair backflip. Four years later he stunned crowds at a camp in Woodward by landing the first double backflip. Invited to join Nitro Circus, he soon became a crowd favorite. In 2011, during their first tour of New Zealand, Wheelz landed the world’s first wheelchair frontflip in front of 17,500 screaming fans in Wellington.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s a good feeling to have some records I can look back at and think ‘oh wow. I’ve been able to accomplish all this’. It’s awesome,” he says, adding he couldn’t do what he does without Mike Box of Box Wheelchairs, who’s been building chairs for him since he was nine; describing him as pretty much like a second dad.
“When I look back at the chairs I was riding I’m like ‘oh my gosh, how was I jumping these giant ramps with those?’ But the technology has definitely come a long way. I’m really pumped to see how the chairs are holding up and just to see how they have been evolving.”
There’s also practice. Lots of practice.
“It’s mostly what I do. We get some time before the shows. Then of course the shows are good practice. Whenever I’m home or whenever I get the chance to ride a skate park I also do that and that’s kind of what I do the most, ride parks. But I also really enjoy hitting the big ramps as much as I can.”
Right now, he’s been working on a lawn dart front flip.
“It’s where you hit the jump and you just dive forward, like you’re just doing a Superman type of thing. You come in head first towards the landing. Then, at the last second, you just tuck in and you finish the rotation. It’s pretty scary.”
Wheelz laughs at the suggestion he sounds fearless. He feels if your confidence is stronger than your fear you’re pretty much good to go; it’s managing the fear, pushing past it and using it as motivation.
“When the crowd start yelling ‘Wheelz, Wheelz...’ and I’ve got to go down the ramp my brain kind of goes crazy. That’s probably the hardest part about the stunt, managing what’s going on in my head rather than actually physically what’s going on, because you know it’s all downhill,” he laughs.
“To be able to push yourself over that edge sometimes can be pretty hard. It’s easy to get caught up in all the negative thinking, all the things that could possibly go wrong but, you know, if you focus on what can go wrong it’ll go wrong. It’s important to stay positive.”
The riders are, by their own confession, crazy. Not enough to try something until they’re ready.
“If I feel like I’m really not ready to do something then I won’t do it. It’s not because I don’t think I can do it, it’s just some stunts I feel you’ve got to take your time with. It’s important to make sure you’re ready and to take the right precautions; I’m always wearing safety gear such as a helmet or neck brace.”
Wheelz says it’s a lot of fun visiting so many “cool places” around the world with Nitro Circus, showing people what’s possible and what you can do with some hard work and just pushing past some of your fears.
They’re a competitive bunch he admits, laughing.
“Really, it’s more like a family of friends just pushing each other to push the limits of all these different sports. We’ve got some of the top athletes from around the world in all of these different sports who just come together to put on this mind-blowing show. It’s hard to describe, but every one that comes out tends to really enjoy it.”
A fan of extreme sports since he was a child and spurred on by the success of Nitro Circus, he’d love to see a competition like the X Games specifically for wheelchair users.
“That would be awesome. Right now we have WCMX competitions and we actually just had the world championships for WCMX in Texas and it’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of competitors out there and a lot of people pushing themselves and pushing the sport.”
Travis Pastrana’s world famous Nitro Circus Live lands at Foxhall Stadium, Ipswich, June 25.
It began in 2003, with Jeremy Rawle, Gregg Godfrey and extreme sports superstar Pastrana producing DVDs from a garage in Utah.
It became a hit TV series, airing in more than 60 countries; followed by Nitro Circus: The Movie 3D in 2012. In the last six years, the live show has been seen by more than two million fans.
Some of the planet’s greatest action sports stars will pull off death-defying stunts, tricks and world firsts that have yet to be seen even in competition.
Known for their freestyle motocross, BMX and skate riding routines regular highlights include the Nitro Bomb, with every rider flipping simultaneously; FMX trains with riders slicing through the air wheel-to-wheel and the infamous 40ft Giganta ramp launching a host of ridiculous contraptions like trikes, a penny farthing, a lounge chair, a bathtub and more into the sky.