First Person

February 28, 2014 1:35 pm

First Person: Aaron Fotheringham

‘I do backflips in a wheelchair’
Aaron Fotheringham©Joe Toreno

Fotheringham envied kids with skateboards – 'until I realised I had wheels too'

I never dreamt that one day a wheelchair would pay my bills but it has helped me to make a name for myself performing daredevil stunts. My most dangerous trick is a backflip, freewheeling down a 50ft ramp that launches me high into the air.

I was born with spina bifida. I hated using crutches when I was a child because they made me feel awkward and cumbersome – when I walked, the pain in my hips was terrible. I’m 22 now and was three when I sat in my first wheelchair – it changed my life. Suddenly I could zoom around the house and the streets of Las Vegas, where I grew up and still live. That first wheelchair was made of heavy steel but I wouldn’t have cared if it had been built of lead. It was a far cry from my latest wheelchair, which has an aluminium frame with suspension on the wheels. The design is refined all the time but each chair only survives six months before I wreck it.

My older brother, Brian, took me to a skate park when I was eight. I wanted to be like the other kids, riding BMX bikes and skateboards up and down the ramps. Then I realised I had wheels too.

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I fell over a lot but everybody urged me to carry on practising. Both my parents are teachers and they encouraged me to continue because it boosted my confidence. Slowly I improved and felt confident enough to compete against BMX riders in local events.

I could ride on one wheel, slide down a handrail and jump over walls but it was performing the backflip for the first time in 2006 that really put me in the spotlight. Suddenly, I was invited to events all over the country.

I appeared as a stunt rider in the TV series Glee, was photographed for dozens of magazine articles and landed a sponsorship deal. Last year I travelled all over the world with the Nitro Circus Live tour, performing stunts alongside the best BMX riders and skateboarders. At one event last year I performed in front of 25,000 people; the noise was deafening. There are usually strobes and pyrotechnics exploding all around me, so it’s hard to concentrate. It’s important to relax your body if you want to do a backflip in a wheelchair. I’ve done it hundreds of times but I can tell you it’s never easy to relax. The adrenalin is pumping and I am totally psyched up from the moment I wheel into an arena.

My wheelchair has a safety belt but there’s no airbag. If something goes wrong, and it often does, then I usually end up destroying the frame or banging my head. Even wearing a helmet, landing on your head hurts. I’ve been performing stunts for 13 years now – somehow, I’ve never broken a bone.

As the wheelchair launches off the ramp at 20mph, suddenly I’m looking at the ceiling lights. I have to remember to keep leaning back and allow my body and the chair to go into a spin. It feels unnatural but you get used to it. The ground appears all too quickly sometimes – hopefully I’m upright enough for the wheels to take the impact first.

I’m currently perfecting my most dangerous trick to date: a double backflip. I’ve been working on it since 2010 but it still goes wrong more times than right. Sometimes I feel more like a test dummy than a test pilot. Landing on your face is always painful, even with body armour, neck brace and a helmet.

I don’t see why I can’t carry on as a stuntman for years, provided I’m not too foolish. My parents watch me as often as they can and give plenty of support. I give motivational speeches to other chair users and help a wheelchair company design better equipment for stunt riders.

It’s been a long process getting to where I am but I have fulfilled my dream. A lot of people say having a wheelchair holds you back but I’m living proof that it doesn’t.

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