Nitro Circus features quite a few recognizable characters, but after ringleader Travis Pastrana it’s hard to pick a more well-known Nitro athlete than Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, pioneer of WCMX, aka freestyle wheelchair. A fan and fellow-athlete favorite, Wheelz exploded onto the scene in 2010 after landing the first-ever backflip on a wheelchair, and he hasn’t looked back, breaking records and inspiring millions, all while fearlessly sending it and having the time of his life on mega ramps and skateparks around the world.
I caught up with Wheelz in Norco, California, where he was designing and testing a new line of WCMX wheelchairs, developing models meant specifically for the park and the mega ramp. When he’s not out riding, you can often find him working on growing the sport of WCMX in various ways. He’s currently the most well-known WCMX athlete, and that’s no fluke. I mentioned he was the first to ever land a backflip on a wheelchair, and he eventually followed that up with sticking the World First wheelchair frontflip during a Nitro Circus show in Wellington, New Zealand. Check it out:
But before he was sticking flips every which way off of Giganta, Wheelz was a kid growing up in a very supportive family in Las Vegas. He was born with a genetic condition called spina bifida and has never had full use of his legs. And like many little brothers, he wanted to spend more time with his older brother, who was into action sports. “I was always trying to hang out with him, but he’d never let me hang out with him,” he says. Wheelz eventually started going to skateparks with his brother and his dad. It was his brother who coaxed him to come off the sidelines at the park. “One time at the skatepark, he came up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to try to drop into the skatepark on your wheelchair?’ Looking back, I don’t know if he was trying to help me or hurt me,” he says, laughing. Wheelz was about 8 at the time. His dad said it was OK, and while it was Aaron Fotheringham who dropped in, Wheelz was the one who rode away. Eventually.
His brother was right there to help. “Him and a bunch of the kids got me to the top of this quarter, and I just dropped in. I ate crap like four times trying that, and then I was able to roll away from it successfully, finally, and that adrenaline was something I really enjoyed, so I just kept going at it.” This was his introduction to the most important action sports lesson: Falling is a natural part of learning, and what you do after you eat dirt is what defines you as an athlete. The support of his family was key to his development. “I’m glad my parents allowed me to fall, allowed me to go to the skatepark and try to figure it out,” he says.
That skatepark session was obviously pivotal, and he was a natural. The first time he dropped in on a quarterpipe he did so without any frame of reference for how to do it on a wheelchair. “I just always looked up to BMXers and skaters, so being able to get up there and try it was terrifying, because I didn’t have anywhere to look for help,” he says. The key was quickly grasping the adjustments he needed to make. “You’ve got the two small wheels on the front of the chair, and when I first dropped in I didn’t know you had to lift those up, so I just dropped in on all four and it just kind of bucketed forward, just dump-trucked forward,” he says. “I tried that a couple times, and then you learn, OK, you gotta get up into a wheelie and just stay on the back wheels until you get to the bottom, and then you can let the front wheels touch.”
Before long, he was at the skatepark every chance he could get. “It was always like, ‘OK, now where can I try to drop in?’ My brother would be like, ‘Try right here. This one’s a little taller, or this one.’ And so we would just go to a park and start on the small ones and just work my way up.” At this point, it was clear his brother wasn’t trying to hurt him.
They would go to different skateparks around Vegas, and Wheelz found that new challenges are what action sports are really all about. “At the time I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a whole new level.’ Kinda like in a video game. You’ve graduated and you’re at the next level,” he says. “Every time you go to a new skatepark it’s like a whole new possibility of things happen and open up, because each park’s a little different.”
He credits being born and raised in Vegas and having a family who let him forge his own path to his success. “Everything was just too perfect. I was adopted, so being adopted into this family, being with an older brother who’s into extreme sports, and then the city of Las Vegas has a lot of skateparks.” He could find a skatepark in almost any direction from his house within two miles, he says. That doesn’t hurt when you’re up-and-coming in the action sports world. He gives a shoutout to Pro Park in Vegas, where the size of the drop-ins was a huge part of his development as an athlete. So his initial experience at the park wasn’t much different than most riders have, with one notable exception: For most of us, progression doesn’t mean inventing a brand-new sport.
The park became his bread and butter, but the big ramps were calling to him. “I’d been riding all these parks for a few years, and I was doing grinds, and I was doing 180s, and just progressing,” he says. But kids at parks were constantly asking him if he could backflip. “It kept hitting me in the head, and I was like, ‘You know, that sounds like something I actually really want to do.’” So he set his sights on Woodward, where he knew they had a big ramp and a foam pit he could use to practice.
“I begged my mom. I was like, ‘I have to go to this place called Woodward! It’s a magical place where you can try these tricks and they have foam pits and stuff.’” His mom made the call. At the time it was unprecedented for a kid on a wheelchair. They hesitated, but not for long, and with his parents’ support — a big sacrifice for them, he says — he was off to one of the best action sports camps in the world.
On the first day at Woodward, they weren’t allowed to ride at all. There was an orientation and the new riders toured the facilities and could only watch, so they’d get a feel for the flow of Woodward before diving in. “I’m just looking at the foam pit. In fact, that day, that’s all I wanted to look at. I was like, ‘OK, there’s other skateparks here, but I really just want to look at this foam pit, because I’ve got one thing I came here to do,’” Wheelz recalls. “The first day they let us do anything, I was just straight there.” He spent that whole first day attempting backflips, getting advice from counselors, who were very helpful. “Just that atmosphere there makes you want to progress,” he says.
That guidance paid off. “I think it was the next day, I just felt so good with the backflip into the foam, like, ‘OK, I’m getting it every single try. Now I gotta try it onto the resi.’ And I was terrified, you know,” he says, laughing. “Because that’s, like, you have to make sure you pull it. It’s for real this time. So after about 10 or 11 tries or something around there, I ended up landing it. And I, I lost it. I called my mom — she didn’t believe me — and I’m just freaking out, like, ‘Holy crap, second day in I landed it!’” These days, he’s landing backflips regularly in Nitro shows, and he also landed the World First double backflip on a wheelchair:
He still has a good relationship with Woodward. He hasn’t led a camp there yet, but he hopes to soon. “WCMX is growing so much, and now it’s getting to the point where more and more people on chairs are going out and wanting to hit Woodward,” he says. “So hopefully we have a class or some kind of camp for WCMX soon. That’d be awesome.”
He’s modest about his contribution to what’s essentially a brand-new action sport. “I’ve just been doing it forever, so I have a little bit of a head start, you know, but I’m just really grateful that I’m in a position that I’m able to kind of help people see the wheelchair in a different light,” he says. “There’s nothing more rewarding than going to a skatepark with kids on chairs, and at the beginning the kids get there and some of them seem sort of bummed or a little down, and after they hit the skatepark they just have this perma-grin on their face, you know? They’re just so pumped and so happy. It’s just fun.”
He doesn’t have a specific vision for how he’d like to see WCMX evolve; he just hopes it continues to grow. Competitions, shows, more media coverage — all that would be great, but his main thing is he wants to go to the skatepark and see kids on wheelchairs having a blast getting into the sport. “I’ve always just had fun with my wheelchair, and it’s always brought joy to me. So if I can change someone’s outlook on their wheelchair and make it into a positive, that’s mission accomplished,” he says. “I’d really love to see more kids getting out there and having fun, because, you know, it really is just wheels stuck to your butt. How can that not be fun?”
Focusing on progressing his sport in the most fun way possible has served Wheelz well. One year at X-Games his dad helped him get up on one of the big features so he could drop in. He wasn’t supposed to based on the credentials he had, but no one was stopping him, so he went for it. “At the time it was the biggest thing I’d done — I think it was like a 20-foot roll-in, or something,” he says, laughing at the memory. One of his wheels dipped over the side of the coping, giving him a scare, but it was worth it, he says. Shaun White witnessed it and told Wheelz’s dad, “That just blew away anything I’ve ever done.” That’s a highlight for Wheelz.
“So before Nitro, that was the biggest thing I’d ever done,” Wheelz says. He was dedicated to getting on a big ramp, and he was reaching out to heavy hitters. “I think it was MySpace days: I was hitting up Bob Burnquist, I was hitting up Danny Way, and none of these guys were responding.” Someone suggested Nitro, and he figured it would be another non-response, so he didn’t even try. That made it especially cool when Nitro reached out to him. “They were like, ‘Since we’re Nitro Circus we’re not going to tell you no.’ And I was just, like, losing it. I actually woke my parents up to read the email.” That email came in December of 2009. He started touring with Nitro at the beginning of 2010.
The first show was scary, he said. “There’s this huge crowd, but also that huge crowd pumps you up.” He got only a couple hours of practice on Giganta before his first show. He didn’t land the backflip that night, but he’s been with Nitro ever since. He cites Steve Mini and the FMX athletes as being especially inspirational, having the incredible willpower to attempt the death-defying tricks that they do. But, he says, the athletes of Nitro are all inspiring in different ways: “There’s a point where everyone in the show has inspired me.”
The feeling is mutual, as you probably assume. “Wheelz is a one-of-a-kind super human. He truly inspires me to want to be better and always has this glow to him that makes him so welcoming,” says fellow Giganta athlete Gavin Godfrey. “Wheelz is the definition of an American badass!”
FMX legend Josh Sheehan says, “Wheelz is an awesome guy to have around, always happy and joking around and always turns it on for the crowd.”
These days in addition to touring with Nitro, riding parks every chance he gets, and hanging with his dog, Wheelz edits most of the videos you see on his social media (check out his YouTube channel here) and works with Box Wheelchairs to design a new generation of chairs. The chair he rides in the Nitro show is also his everyday chair. It is, obviously, modified from what you’d find in a standard wheelchair. It has suspension in the back and the front, special wheels, and extra cross-bracing on the frame. Basically, a WCMX chair is made for taking a beating, but it’s still comfortable. “It’s nice to be able to have a chair that can just cruise or hit the park,” he says.
Whether he’s in the park, sending it on Giganta, or designing gear for a new generation of up-and-coming athletes, Wheelz fully embodies the spirit of what it means to be an action sports icon. He’s serious about his progression and growing his sport, and he’s succeeding at that because he’s fearless and always makes sure he’s having a great time. When people talk about Wheelz, the word “inspiration” almost inevitably comes up, but that’s not because he’s taken something that many regard as a disadvantage and turned it into a kick-ass advantage. OK, it’s partly that, but it’s also because no matter why he chose the sport he chose, Wheelz has an attitude and personality that will take him to the top of anything he goes after.