LAS VEGAS — All you need to know about Aaron Fotheringham is captured in his Instagram account description: "Foremost expert in turning lemons into lemonade."
Born with spina bifida, Fotheringham embraced life in a wheelchair at age 8. Now the fearless 26-year-old they call "Wheelz" has essentially created a new sport in which he does flips off 50-foot mega ramps in front of cheering stadium crowds around the world. He also entertains by performing various tricks at skate parks.
For Fotheringham, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently married in the Las Vegas LDS Temple, the best part is helping children in wheelchairs to discover how exciting life can be. Through his friendly nature and wild stunts, "Wheelz" is inspiring people he's never met, including one family in Arizona.
"Life in a wheelchair isn't a dead end. A lot of people see the wheelchair as a medical device that slows you down. How could it slow you down? It's on wheels," Fotheringham told the Deseret News. "A wheelchair is not just a medical device, it's a tool to help you succeed and it's a lot of fun."
In a 2008 ESPN interview, a young Fotheringham was asked to define spina bifida?
"A great opportunity," he said with a smile.
Aaron is one of six children adopted into the family of Steve and Kaylene Fotheringham. After struggling to get around on braces or crutches for his first eight years, Fotheringham welcomed sitting in a wheelchair. But he didn't want to be treated any different than the other kids, insisting he didn't see himself as disabled, he said.
A short time later at a skate park near home, Fotheringham's older brother Brian was riding a BMX bicycle and encouraged his little brother to "drop in" the quarter pipe. Mostly wanting to impress his brother, Aaron thought, "Why not?" Despite a face-plant on his first try, Fotheringham kept trying. He found it fun and he got better, he said.
Fast-forward almost two decades. What Fotheringham has accomplished since then in what he calls "WCMX" — wheelchair motocross — is nothing short of impressive.
In 2006, at age 14, Fotheringham successfully landed the first wheelchair backflip. A video of the feat went viral on YouTube.
In 2010, the kid known as "Wheelz" landed the first double backflip and began traveling globally with the Nitro Circus Tour show.
A year later, wanting to try something different, Fotheringham landed the first frontflip.
In 2012, Fotheringham jumped a 50-foot gap and landed safely on the other side. "To me, that was top of the list," he said.
While seeing the world and doing tricks with the best BMX riders and skateboarders around, Fotheringham also found sponsors for his tires, which wear out fast, and a more heavy-duty, custom-built wheelchair, designed for extreme wear and tear, among others.
In the process of figuring out his "air awareness," Fotheringham has endured his fair share of crashes and injuries, as shown in his many videos. That's why he's ready to do more public speaking. "It's less painful," he joked.
"Injuries happen more than I'd like to admit," Fotheringham said. "I've dealt with, sadly, a large number of concussions, but thankfully no real broken bones. I've broken my teeth out. The worst injury was getting knocked out."
Despite having 23 surgeries related to spina bifida during his life, Fotheringham has always been able to see the advantages, such as handicapped parking, he said with a laugh. During times of discouragement, Fotheringham has learned to rely on his faith in a Savior.
"People would ask me how do you have such a good attitude towards spina bifida? I never really understood it but then I thought, the Atonement plays a bigger role in our lives than we might realize," said Fotheringham, who occasionally speaks to LDS audiences about dealing with adversity. "When I’ve struggled with other things in my life, I've realized the Atonement isn’t just for sin, but it's to help you with your afflictions and your infirmities. That has been real big to me ... and makes the lemons a little less bitter."
What keeps "Wheelz" jumping is the adrenaline rush.
"It's the feeling of being scared but also the spirit of accomplishment after you've pushed past those fears and end up landing something. I think that's what keeps me coming back," Fotheringham said. "Something can feel so impossible but then you end up landing it and it's just unreal."
Away from the ramps, cameras and cheering crowds, Fotheringham said he celebrated his greatest accomplishment earlier this year when he married his sweetheart, Charlee Wilson, in the Las Vegas Temple.
Wilson first observed Fotheringham from a distance at an LDS singles activity in 2017. She had recently returned from serving an LDS mission and was a little shy to approach him, so sent him an Instagram message. He responded. They began dating last September and were engaged by late October.
"I thought he was super handsome," Charlee Fotheringham said of her first impression. "It was a little intimidating to know any kind of relationship we have would be public. That was the only thing that worried me, But I admired him for the way he treated his disability. It never held him back from anything. That gave me insight into his character, and I admired that a lot and was really drawn to that."
Since their February wedding, one of Charlee Fotheringham's favorite things is to see her husband roll around a skate park with people in wheelchairs and give them hope for a more fun and fulfilling life.
"I love it. I think that's the coolest part in this sport he's created," she said. "It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can be young or old, it doesn’t matter, and you go out and shred the parks like a skateboarder or BMXer. They have so much fun."
Kids in wheelchairs who come to WCMX clinics are initially timid. But once they get rolling around the park, a big grin appears on their faces, Fotheringham said.
"It’s cool to see how it transforms in their mind — from 'I can’t do anything' to 'wait a minute, I can skate just like a skater,'" Fotheringham said. "To me that is the most rewarding thing."
Fotheringham fondly remembers the day a young German boy told him, "Now I know my life isn't over."
"That hit me really hard," Fotheringham said. "Sometimes I maybe don’t realize the impact that it has because I’m just riding around, having fun. But it’s really changing people’s lives and letting them know it’s not a dead end."
That's the case with Phoenix residents Ryan and Amy Ensminger. They have only ever seen Fotheringham in his YouTube videos.
After trying to have children for a decade, the Arizona couple finally had a son they named Jackson. He was born with spina bifida.
As the Ensmingers learned more about spina bifida, they saw a video of "Wheelz" doing tricks at a skate park. Ryan Ensminger felt an immediate connection to Fotheringham.
"To me, it was so inspiring to see all that he was accomplishing and more importantly, how he embraced what made him different," Ryan Ensminger said. "It didn't stop him from enjoying life."2 comments on this story
Jackson Ensminger, now 6, is a big fan of "Wheelz." His parents have taken him to the skate park on several occasions. They ordered a wheelchair from Box Wheelchairs, the same company that makes Fotheringham's WCMX wheelchair. They hope to introduce their son to him at a future event.
Because of Fotheringham and WCMX, the Ensmingers have tapped into a whole new community of "amazing people." This have adopted the attitude that with a little creativity, anything is possible for their son.
"'Wheelz' has shown us that there are no limits for someone in a wheelchair," Ryan Ensminger said. "As a dad, seeing 'Wheelz' has opened my eyes to always be mindful to create opportunities for Jackson to try everything in life."