How do you do a back flip in a wheelchair?

Aaron Fotheringham
Extreme Sports Image Gallery Aaron Fotheringham performs a back flip in his wheelchair. See more pictures of extreme sports.
Photo courtesy Aaron Fotheringham

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. This is true in the case of skateboarding and the extreme sports that followed. When waves were nonexistent in Southern California in the 1970s, surfers took to the streets on skateboards. Skating in Los Angeles parking lots worked for a while, but it became clear that verticality was key to the evolving sport. Empty swimming pools met this need, and they soon gave way to half pipes and the invention of the skate park. The park at Carlsbad, Calif., credited as being the world's first, opened for business in 1976, and the world of extreme sports hasn't been the same since. Skate pipes got taller, ramps became steeper and skaters soon found themselves leaving the "rim" of the pipe and catching air. Things only went up from there.

At the same time, motocross and BMX were coming into their own. Suddenly, kids who weren't interested in baseball or football could choose from a new breed of sport. Competitions and corporate sponsors legitimized the sports of skateboarding and inline skating, along with BMX and motocross. Then, the creation of the X Games brought it all together in a tidy and highly marketable package.


Extreme athletes are known for creating new tricks that push the limits of gravity. That spirit of innovation has resulted in a continuous evolution of these relatively young sports. Such is the case with extreme athlete Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham. Seventeen-year-old Aaron has invented an entirely new sport that blends the worlds of BMX and skateboarding with a unique twist. He calls it "hardcore sitting," an admittedly odd name for an extreme sport. But when you consider that Aaron has spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair since he was 8 years old, it all makes sense.

Hardcore Sitting

Aaron Fotheringham
Aaron Fotheringham balances his wheelchair on the lip of a bowl.
Photo courtesy Aaron Fotheringham

Aaron Fotheringham, the creator of hardcore sitting, was born with spina bifida in 1991 in Las Vegas, Nev. Spina bifida is a condition in which the spine never fully closes during the first months of pregnancy. The results vary from case to case, and for Aaron, it meant he needed a wheelchair full time by the age of 8, after several surgical attempts to correct his condition.

About this time, Aaron watched his older brother Brian perform tricks on his bicycle at a BMX park. Brian suggested that Aaron try "dropping in" with the wheelchair. The idea made him nervous, but Aaron gave it a shot. Because nobody had ever tried doing BMX and skateboard tricks from a wheelchair, Aaron was self-taught from the beginning. He took advice and ideas from other skaters and bikers to create his own version of popular tricks, like grinding and 180 degree aerial turns.


He got a special wheelchair from the custom company Colours in Motion, which allowed for a smoother and sturdier ride. Over the years, that chair has been modified to suit Aaron's unusual needs -- adding a shock system as well as special metal bars to beef up the suspension and protect the shocks.

Aaron's extreme sitting safety precautions are similar to what you'd see in BMX or skateboarding. He wears elbow pads, gloves and a full-face helmet, and so far has only broken his elbow once and gotten the standard bumps and bruises. He's been competing alongside BMX bikers since 2005 and has more than 10 corporate sponsors. He won the trophy at the BMX Intermediate Vegas AmJam 2005 Finals and spends about 30 to 40 hours per week practicing the sport he invented.

Aaron received a fair amount of attention for his achievements, but everything changed on July 13, 2006, when he became the first person to complete a back flip in a wheelchair.


The Wheelchair Back Flip

Aaron Fotheringham
Aaron Fotheringham does a hand plant.
Photo courtesy Aaron Fotheringham

After mastering the basic tricks of the sport he invented, Aaron set his sights on a feat that had never been attempted -- a wheelchair back flip. He'd been prodded by friends and fellow skaters to try the flip, so he started practicing. If you're wondering how someone practices doing a wheelchair back flip, you're not alone. When practicing any difficult BMX trick, foam cushions are where you begin. This seemed like a logical place for Aaron to start as well.

After about 50 to 60 tries using cushions, Aaron moved on to the "rezi," a harder plastic surface on top of the cushions. After that, the only step left was to try it out on the hard concrete ramp of the skate park. It took Aaron roughly 15 unsuccessful attempts before he landed a full back flip. Earlier attempts ranged from coming up short and smacking his helmet on the ground to overrotating and landing on his back. Finally, at about 9 p.m. on July 13, 2006, in front of a small crowd of fellow skaters, Aaron landed the world's first wheelchair back flip.


Aaron says that the key to the trick is building and maintaining the right speed necessary to complete the move without overrotation. He's now mastered the trick and performs it in competitions and exhibitions all over the world. In October 2008, "Guinness Book of World Records" certified Aaron as the sole inventor and performer of the wheelchair back flip [source: Ammerman].

In the future, Aaron plans to develop his sport as he continues to inspire people the world over. He wants to help legitimize hardcore sitting, much like the early pioneers of skateboarding and BMX did before him. His ultimate goal, of course, is the X Games, where he hopes to compete one day. He also has his sights set on some more extreme wheelchair tricks -- the first aerial 1080-degree turn and maybe even a double back flip. He'd also like to develop a hardcore sitting video game and to continue to work with children with spina bifida and other conditions that require a wheelchair.

But for a young man who says that spina bifida has been a "great opportunity," he's shown that life in a wheelchair can be anything but confining.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Aaron Fotheringham: First Wheelchair Backflip.", 2009.
  • "Breaking Barriers." ESPN, 2009.
  • "R-Jeneration: On the Edge: Hot Wheels." Noorda, Lauren., September 19, 2006. 2006/living/9628570.html
  • "Spina Bifida.", 2009.
  • "Vegas Am Jam Team Member.", 2009.
  • Ammerman, Sean. "Wheelchair athlete's back flip lands him in record book.", October 31, 2008.
  • Aaron Fotheringham.
  • Silver, Steve. "Fox's 'Secret Millionaire' gifts local wheelchair athlete $20k.", December 18, 2008.