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A day of pushing limits for wheelchair users

A Venice Beach skateboarding park is transformed into a training ground for the disabled to test their courage.

June 26, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Jonathan Stark, 20, of Pittsburgh bravely attempts a trick during an event hosted by Life Rolls On Foundation, where quadriplegics, paraplegics and amputees learn to skateboard at Venice Skate Park.
Jonathan Stark, 20, of Pittsburgh bravely attempts a trick during an event… (Christina House, For The…)

Walter Molo wouldn't go.

"Go, Molo, go!" his friends yelled.

The once-avid motorcycle rider is not one to shy from adventure. But to dive 4 feet down a steep concrete embankment — in a wheelchair, while paralyzed from the waist down?

"Yeah," Molo said, gripping his wheels a few feet from the edge. "I'm gonna have to take a moment to think this one over."

A skateboarding park on Venice Beach transformed into a training ground Saturday morning as several dozen paraplegics and quadriplegics learned to drop, roll and dive on curved walls as tall as school buses. They did so all while sitting in their own wheelchairs.

The event was held by Life Rolls On, a group born out of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to help people with spinal cord injuries stay active. They teach surfing and this year, for the second time, skateboarding.

Participants, some as young as 6, showed up strapped to wheelchairs with legs that don't work or barely do. They're survivors of car crashes, shootings and surgeries gone wrong. Some were born with spinal defects.

Molo, 36, was struck by an SUV as he rode his motorcycle to work one day five years ago. The driver was on her cellphone. She made a left turn on a red light and plowed head-on into the computer repair technician.

For almost two years, Molo stayed in his house, too depressed to go out. He watched television, played computer games. Mostly, he slept. Then he found Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, which encourages wheelchair sports.

Three buddies from the center egged him on until he finally let go and took on the embankment — in one smooth, perfect swoop.

"Oh, yeah," he said proudly.

Others tried their luck and lost. They spun out of control, hit the ground hard, face down, one limp leg on top of the other.

Each time, they got up with help, laughed it off and kept trying, like any regular skateboarder would.

"That's part of the thrill," said Rancho Los Amigos therapist Adam Wilson, who looked on from the sidelines, "that there's a fear factor, and they can still challenge themselves."

Among the bravest were the little ones, such as Leland Moore, who was born with spina bifida.

Like most, the fourth-grader with a freckled face had never attempted to skate. He imagined the park on his ride up from Carlsbad:

"I thought it would be huge, full of super scary, super deep curves," he said.

But when he saw it, he said, he thought: "Ah, this is nothing."

He raced around the bowl as fast as his skinny arms could push him, up and down banks, trying to imitate his hero, Aaron "Wheelz" Fotheringham, a 19-year-old professional wheelchair skater who tours the country competing.

Fotheringham was on hand to teach the novices, along with other extreme riders. He is known for landing the first wheelchair back flip. He also does hand plants, wheelers, rollouts and mid-air 180-degree turns in a special, high-tech wheelchair.

Chelsie Hill went home to Monterey content, knowing she had accomplished her goal: rolling down an embankment — not once, but several times, all on her own.

The former dancer lost the use of her legs about a year ago when her friend, who had been drinking, crashed into a tree after a party. Out of the five people in the car, the 19-year-old was hurt the worst.

Today, she's part of a wheelchair hip-hop dance team. She also surfs and delivers motivational speeches to high-schoolers. And now she skates — a little.

Sitting in her cotton-candy pink and cheetah colored wheelchair, she smiled and said one of the most important things she shares with students:

"I'm not letting this stop me."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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