A wheelchair may seem like a barrier for some people. To Aaron Fotheringham, it means freedom, he told athletes, their families and others attending the 12th annual DisABILITY Sports Festival at Cal State San Bernardino. “My wheelchair has given me some pretty cool opportunities, and this one (being at the DisABILITY Sports Festival) is one of them.” Though born with spina bifida, a condition in which his spinal cord did not develop properly leaving Fotheringham without the use of his legs, as a young boy he dreamed of being a professional action sports athlete, either a skater or bicycle motocross (BMX) rider. “But for obvious reasons,” he said, “I can’t ride a bike or a skateboard; my wheels are a little bit different.”

But he did become a professional action sports athlete on a ride with wheels that are a little bit different. Nicknamed “Wheelz,” Fotheringham is a four-time professional wheelchair motocross (WCMX) champion, and tours with Nitro Circus, “the gnarliest,” he said, group of action sports athletes on skateboards, bicycles, scooters and motorcycles. Fotheringham was the guest athlete at the festival, considered one of the largest events showcasing adaptive sports, held on Oct. 6 at CSUSB. Free for participants of all abilities,ages 8 months to 84 years old, the festival drew and estimated 800 participants and their families, along with about 250 volunteers to assist them during the day. “We believe in showing the importance of health and physical activity increasing the quality of life and providing learning opportunities, while raising awareness for people living with disabilities in our community,” said Guillermo Escalante, one of the co-directors of the DisABILITY Sports Festival and a CSUSB assistant professor of kinesiology. “We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to realize that a disability is not an inability.” And Dennis Powell, a Los Angeles Dodgers alumnus (he pitched for the team in the mid-1980s), was inspired by the participants. Officially opening the festival for the second consecutive year, he told them, “You inspire us. You motivate us. The only thing you have to do, like what Aaron told us, is never quit. Never quit. You have ability. I believe in a God who does not make mistakes. Every last one of you has a purpose in your life. … Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let that chair stop you. Don’t let anything stop you.”

The festival featured more than 25 different sports, including archery, wheelchair and standing basketball, tennis, soccer, wall climbing, skateboarding, swimming and hand cycling. Each sport and activity was coached by an athlete with a disability, including Paralympians, and others at the elite-level. There were resource booths from community programs and services that are available for people with disabilities and their families, and the LA Galaxy Street Team and the LA Kings Street Hockey Team and Puck Shoot invited people to try their hand at soccer and hockey. New at the 2018 festival was the Light Saber Academy demonstrating adapted fencing, featuring performances of Imperial Stormtroopers and Jedi knights. Also new was Bubble Yoga and Blind Soccer, basketball and Frisbee, human foosball, equine therapy and stationary rowing – andFotheringham’s sport, WCMX, which is similar to bicycle motocross (BMX). But getting to where he is now was a journey that included incidents that could have been discouraging. When his birth parents learned that he was born with spina bifida, they abandoned him in the hospital. He had to have 22 surgeries related to his condition. “At first glance, it would seem that all this would be a recipe for a miserable life,” Fotheringham said. “But it turns out that being abandoned in the hospital, having all these health problems, turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. When I was abandoned in the hospital, I was adopted by one of the most loving families out in Las Vegas.” As it turned out, Fotheringham became the third adopted child of his parents, who would go on to adopt three more children. His older brother, Brian, who was a skater and BMX rider, was his childhood hero, and it was through him that Fotheringham would dive – literally – in to a quarter pipe at a skatepark in his wheelchair. After doing some riding, Brian came over to his younger brother and asked him if he wanted to drop into the quarter pipe in his chair. “I think about it,” Fotheringham recalled, “and he’s probably trying to kill me. But it sounded like fun.”
So, helmetless because he didn’t plan on riding in to a quarter pipe and terrified because he had never done anything like it, “I pushed forward, and something happened. I fell on my face. It was rough. It hurt, but it felt like it was doable.” A second time finished with the same result. Determined, there was a third attempt, and Fotheringham decide to lift the front wheels of his chair before dropping in. “And when I did that, I dropped in and rolled away successfully,” he said. “For the first time in my life I dropped into a quarter pipe. “From that moment, it completely opened my eyes and changed my whole life,” Fotheringham said. “The wheelchair all of a sudden became my freedom. The wheelchair was the way I would be a pro skater or a pro BMX rider.” So he started to hone his skills, learning the same tricks as other skaters and BMX riders. And nine months in, he crashed and wrecked his chair. And the insurance company would not pay for replacement because, Fotheringham said, the chair wasn’t meant for that kind of use. But, unknown to him, people at his church and his parents raised funds to get him a new chair that would handle a skatepark. And in gratitude, he made a video of him in the new chair doing his tricks and sent it to the manufacturer as a thank you. “What I didn’t expect was a response back from them,” Fotheringham said. “What they said was, ‘Hey, we like what you’re doing with our wheelchair. We want you to keep doing it, and we want to sponsor you. Come to California and we’ll build you a new wheelchair.’” And, they told him, wreck a chair, bring it back, and they’d figure out how to build it even better.

With that freedom, he progressed in developing his tricks. But some of the kids at the skatepark kept asking what to him was annoying question: Can you do a backflip? Eventually he saw it as a challenge to meet, so he and his mom talked their way into training at Woodward West, an action sports camp just north of the High Desert in Tehachapi. There, he practiced doing backflips into a foam pit that gently broke his fall. Then came time to do it without the comfort of the foam pit. Fotheringham said he was able to get a good part of backward rotation of the flip in the air, but not all of it. “I landed on my head,” he said. “It was scary and it was hard, but I was getting close. Every time I crashed, it was something I could learn from. It leaves clues, you know?” Then “on July 13th, 8:57 p.m., 2006,” he nailed the flip, landing on his wheels. A video of the trick got uploaded onto YouTube by someone, and it went viral. One of the viewers was a German tire company, which reached out to Fotheringham with an offer to sponsor him and supply his chair’s tires for life. And that was the start of his professional career. He went on to do more tricks, eventually getting the chance to ride down a 55-foot Mega Ramp and do a backflip, which got him the offer to tour with Nitro Circus.


Though it’s been fun thus far, Fotheringham said it certainly hasn’t been easy. “In the process of trying to land a jump on this Mega Ramp, there were some rough times,” he said, mentioning that one of them included knocking out his front teeth. “There’s something I’ve learned over the years as a skater, and that is usually when I get to the point that I want to give up, and just quit, that if I hang in there and just try one more time, that’s usually when I ended up landing it. …  “To this day, I’m constantly crashing. I crash a lot,” he said. “But if there is something I’ve learned, it’s that when I feel like giving up, it’s to hang in there and try a couple more times, and I can make it happen. “Life isn’t always easy. We’ll struggle, we’ll faceplant – well, hopefully not, but it happens,” Fotheringham said. “We just need to remember that we really only fail when we don’t get up and try again.” The DisABILITY Sports Festival is run completely from the donations and support from donors and sponsors. To donate or sponsor, and for more information about the festival, visit the DisABILITY Sports Festival website, email sportfes@csusb.edu, or call (909) 537-5670. For more information about Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit inside.csusb.edu.