By Katherine Beattie
I’m a thrill-seeker. There. I said it. For 30 years people have been trying to slap me with that label, and each time I’d insist that, no, I’m really very easy-going. But I can’t hide it anymore. I love going fast. I’m also incredibly slow. I was born with cerebral palsy, a broad range of neuromuscular disorders marked in my case by very stiff and weak muscles. Most of my adolescence was spent trying to keep pace with my twin sister. She’s over six feet tall, and a lot of that is legs. We both moved at a speed impossible for the other to maintain, so most of the time we were about 10 yards apart.
Living in Southern California, I developed an early obsession with board-sports culture. I was fairly certain I’d grow up to be a surf bum or a professional skateboarder, never mind the fact that I didn’t ditch the training wheels on my 1980s blue Schwinn bike until I hit double digits. When my dad took my twin sister to a skateshop not long after that to buy her first “real skateboard,” I saw my opportunity. I came away with a board of my own, and no idea how to ride it. But obsessions are a thing of mine, and when I’m in, I’m all in. I doubled down and managed to get to a point where I could cruise the neighborhood without injury. Next stop: X-Games 1998. When I underwent bilateral hamstring lengthening surgery two years later — a fairly common procedure for cerebral palsy to release contracted muscles — I had no idea it would put an end to my burgeoning action sports career… but when I failed to regain the strength or balance I had before surgery, I hung up my wheels for good.
"I saw my opportunity. I came away with a board of my own, and no idea how to ride it. But obsessions are a thing of mine, and when I’m in, I’m all in. I doubled down and managed to get to a point where I could cruise the neighborhood without injury."
Four years later I was on my way to college in Texas. On my own for the first time, I realized that perhaps I wasn’t the independent woman my personality suggests (and I really like my space). In high school, if I were to walk anywhere, it was hand-in-hand with my best guy friend, with my arm slung over my mom’s shoulder, or on the arm of my dad, in part thanks to my slow moving body. Now I was forced to walk everywhere by myself, and it was exhausting. I skipped sorority rush upon seeing long lines of girls in black dresses just standing there, waiting to get into houses. I dropped classes that were too far apart on campus. I stayed home from bars because I was unsure I’d be able to find a seat. In short, I was stranded. Then one night, as I was browsing MySpace, like any red-blooded, pre-Facebook era, 18-year-old, I came across a photo of a guy named Mike dropping into a quarter pipe on a wheelchair.
A light went off. There was this thing out there that would help me go wherever I wanted, including the skatepark? Sold!
"A light went off. There was this thing out there that would help me go wherever I wanted, including the skatepark? Sold!"
But I was broke and wheelchairs cost thousands of dollars. My insurance company refused my claim. When I brought the subject up to my parents, they had the reaction I have come to expect from most able-bodied people: Wheelchairs are bad and to be avoided at all costs. Feeling like I was out of options, I struggled silently for the next 8 years. The harder I tried to keep up, the faster my body broke down.
"The harder I tried to keep up, the faster my body broke down."
Then came this thing called Wheelchair Motocross. That guy I’d seen dropping into a skatepark all those years ago? Turns out there were other guys doing the same thing, and they’d turned it into a small but growing sport, WCMX. I’d found my way back to the skatepark a year earlier by way of some supportive friends and a very large skateboard that I learned to ride on my knees. I loved it. My passion for all things wheeled was reignited, but kneeboarding takes a toll on the body, especially one that’s already out of whack, and I had so little left in the tank. Still broke, because by this time I worked in television production, I decided to approach my parents once more, but this time I took a different tack. Would they help me purchase this piece of “sports equipment” called a WCMX chair? To my incredible surprise and delight, they agreed!
My roommate, David, came with me to pick up the custom chair a few months later. I sat on it and immediately took off around the shop. David was surprised how well I was able to handle it, going fast and taking tight corners. In truth, I had no idea what I was doing, but I’d never felt freer.
At the time there were a handful of guys riding skateparks across the country. We were each separated by hundreds of miles, engaging in this painful process of trial and error, trying to figure out this new sport. Eventually I stopped falling, and worked my ass off to become the first girl to land a backflip on a wheelchair. Sometime along the way, WCMX exploded to where it is today. That original group of riders now hosts clinics and WCMX days all over the world, teaching kids as young as age 2 that it’s cool to love your wheelchair. Those kids’ able-bodied friends now wish they had wheelchairs of their own, and their once frightened parents understand it’s not always best to walk when you can roll.
Now I spend my mornings at the skatepark in Venice Beach. It’s an iconic park, usually ringed by spectators. I’ll strike up conversation with them while I’m waiting for my turn to drop in, and I’m taken aback every time I hear someone ask, “Excuse me, are you actually wheelchair bound?” or “Are you confined to a wheelchair in real life?”
Read those words. Bound. Confined. Let the negativity sink in for a moment.
I’m not bound to anything. My wheelchair certainly doesn’t confine me. If anything, my wheelchair allows me to move. And fast. Remember my 6-foot tall twin sister? Guess who’s the one struggling to keep up now.
"I’m not bound to anything. My wheelchair certainly doesn’t confine me. If anything, my wheelchair allows me to move."
Katherine Beattie is one of the top Wheelchair Motocross riders in the world, and in 2015 she became the first girl to land a backflip on a wheelchair. Eager to grow the sport, Katherine spearheaded a successful campaign to include a women’s division at the most recent WCMX World Championships, and spends many weekends a year introducing kids and newly injured adults to WCMX, showing them that wheelchairs can be fun. Katherine is passionate about healthy lifestyles and is thankful to live in Los Angeles where there is a vegan restaurant on every corner. When she’s not busy at the gym or the skatepark, Katherine writes television scripts and hangs out with her dog, a Golden Retriever named Brodie.