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Flip to fame: Extreme wheelchair rider inspires others

LAS VEGAS — It's easy to spot Aaron Fotheringham spinning, "grinding" and stopping for a moment atop the rim of a half-pipe before plunging back into the mass of teenage boys zipping around the neighborhood skate park.

He's the one in the wheelchair, the one with the bright yellow helmet, the one who does the back-flip that has made him an Internet and international celebrity. His friends slap him high fives as they pass on their BMX bikes and skateboards. They call him "Wheels."

"It's cool what he does," says 14-year-old Cody Manring, leaning both elbows on the handlebars of his red BMX bicycle. "He's inspiring other people."

Adults call the 15-year-old Fotheringham one of a kind, a pioneer carving a niche somewhere between BMX and skateboarding.

"The kid, not only the way he rides the park, but when you talk to him, he's positive, polite, levelheaded," says Joe Wichert, xtreme sports coordinator for the city of Las Vegas, which has 19 public skate parks but only one extreme wheelchair rider. "It's great to see someone like Aaron creating a whole new sport."

Fotheringham, a high school freshman whose mom calls him a very average student, talks about angles and slope, inertia and momentum as he tries to describe how he learned to do his signature back flip.

"Sometimes you have to be precise with speed," he says. "And you never want to go in backward."

He grins, a typical teen with tousled brown hair, green eyes and metal braces. He reaches for another slice of pizza during a break from what he calls "hard-core sitting."

That's when you notice the scraped and calloused knuckles, the broad shoulders, the chiseled forearms. He's built from the waist up like a steelworker. He says his arm reach is about 5-foot-8, fingertip to fingertip, and figures he might be that tall if his legs weren't bad.

But they are bad. Fotheringham was born with spina bifida, a defect of the neural tubes that affects more than 70,000 people in the United States, according to the Spina Bifida Association, an advocacy group that features Fotheringham on its Web site.

Fotheringham, one of six adopted children, spent his first eight years using braces, but sometimes fooled around with a wheelchair when other children were on bicycles. He began using the chair full time at age 8, after his third painful hip operation.

"The doctor said when he was 3, 'Get a wheelchair for him,' " says Kaylene Fotheringham, his adopted mom. "It sat in the corner. But, eventually, he needed it full time. Now he rarely gets out of it."

Six years ago, Aaron's older brother, Brian, riding a BMX bicycle, coaxed him into "dropping in" to a half-pipe at a skate park near their northwest Las Vegas home.

Aaron fell, climbed back in the chair and did it again. He got a motocross helmet, elbow pads, a seat belt. Now he practices wheelchair tricks almost every day, sometimes for international audiences.

Representatives from the German wheelchair and bicycle tire manufacturer Schwalbe flew Aaron and his mom to Europe in January for an 11-day promotional tour of three cities in Germany and the Czech Republic.

Closer to home, Fotheringham gets support from a custom wheelchair manufacturing company in Corona, Calif., that builds chairs for him with welded braces, joints and crossbeams to take a pounding, a scrape bar, shock absorbers and independent four-wheel suspension, and soldered spokes on modified 26-inch downhill mountain bike wheels.

His inspiration for the flip? "Kids said how tight it would be if I could back-flip."

Fotheringham spent almost a week working up to it last summer at Woodward West, an action sports summer camp in Tehachapi, Calif. He practiced crashing into a foam pit, with dozens of other campers gathering to watch.

"It's good to have witnesses," Fotheringham says. "It gets your heart pumping and you want to do good."

He finally accomplished the flip on the night before he was to go home.

"He's definitely out of the mold," says Buzzy Sullivan, a coach at Woodward West who videotaped Fotheringham's first flip. "He's not following. He's making his own path."

Fotheringham does stationary spins like a BMX rider and "grinds" like a skateboarder — riding an edge with the wheels of his chair straddling a railing or curb.

Weichert, who heads a BMX and skateboard exhibition series called Vegas Am Jam, says event judges often pick Fotheringham out of the swirling crowd and award him trophies in the BMX category.

"People don't just say, 'He's in a wheelchair, put him on the podium,'" Weichert says. "He's had to work his way up. Definitely no one's giving him a free ride — absolutely not. The kid earns it."

Fotheringham considered what it's like to draw such notice.

"The kids on bikes do amazing things. They don't get all this attention," he says with the humility that his father preaches.

"We all worry about Aaron getting a big head," Steve Fotheringham says as his son wheels up a ramp to launch into another trick. "But, before, we worried about him and despair. I don't think the chair will ever be a deficit for him."


On the Net:

Colours 'N Motion Inc.: http:www.colourswheelchair.com

Spina Bifida Association: http:www.sbaa.org

Vegas Am Jam 2007 series: http:www.vegasamjam.com

Spectators watch Aaron Fotheringham, 15, as he rides the ledge during the Vegas Valley Amateur Skatepark Series at Bunker Skatepark in North Las Vegas. Fotheringham, nickname “Wheels,” maneuvers in his wheelchair, or as he termed it, “hard-core sitting,” around skate parks throughout the Vegas Valley, and recently in Germany.