Editor’s Note: Through a near-death experience caused by a suicide attempt, Jerry Diaz discovered himself, success and the new-found ability to fly. Diaz says, “If I can do it, you can too.”
“I guess the craziest thing I’ve ever done is throwing a quarter back flip off a ramp,” 28-year-old Jerry Diaz of Kissimmee, Florida, says. “I go down a half pipe, up the other side of the half pipe and get enough air to do a quarter back flip – a trick that snowboarders throw called a Misty Flip — while riding my wheelchair. But unlike Aaron Fotheringham who performs with the Nitro Circus, instead of landing facing forward, I land the trick facing backwards.”
Diaz conducts seminars and competes in WCMX (Wheelchair Motocross), an organization created by Aaron Fotheringham and Christian Bailey about 10 years ago.
His mission in life is to show people that he can do anything while riding his wheelchair.
Diaz has thrown tricks while flying 10 feet off the ground; he goes up and down escalators in his wheelchair; and he’ll climb all the way to the top of a gym on a gym rope with a wheelchair, as he says, “strapped to my butt.” Diaz does 15 tricks that BMX riders and skateboard athletes do, but instead he does them while riding a wheelchair. He practices, trains and coaches in skateboard parks.
Diaz explains, “My injuries were the greatest blessings I ever could have received. When I was in the hospital after my accident, I searched for different sports I could learn. I found a video of Aaron Fotheringham doing a back flip in his wheelchair and thought that Fotheringham’s video and trick were the coolest ever. After doing a Google search on Fotheringham, I was totally blown away by his cool tricks on YouTube. But I was so badly injured, and my mental state was so messed up, that I couldn’t see me in the future attempting tricks like Fotheringham was throwing.
One of the reasons I put WCMX in the back of my mind was I didn’t want to get hurt anymore.
“However, a year or more later, I went to a skate park and felt the thrill of pushing my wheelchair off a ramp. I remembered when I’d ridden skateboards. At that time, no one taught wheelchair motocross. I studied Fotheringham’s videos and those of other WCMX riders. Then I’d go to the skate park and try to throw those same tricks. I concentrated on landing my tricks as cleanly as the pros did and developed my own style and some unique tricks of my own.
“I work 20 to 30 hours per week at a surf shop that sells shirts, bags and beach accessories. Then I’m always at the skateboard parks, working to improve, learning new tricks and helping coach other people who ride wheelchairs to throw tricks. I’ve learned enough, performed enough and coached enough to have sponsors who today help me with equipment, including Frog Legs that makes suspension wheelchair forks and 3” and 6” aluminum wheelchair casters in black and colors, to save from excessive vibrations, jolts and shocks.”
“Everything on the wheelchair I ride is customized for me by Box Wheelchairs, one of my sponsors. The company has put full suspension on my WCMX wheelchair that also has a thicker aluminum base to withstand the punishment I give the chair, and all the parts are top-of-the-line. You can’t compete in WCMX in a wheelchair that’s built for everyday use. I weigh 145 pounds. But I’ve gone up in the air 10 feet before, landed flat and broken nothing on my wheelchair thanks to its’ design.
The Wheelchair Didn’t Break – But I Did
“In April 2015, I was in Texas at the 2nd WCMX National Championship in Grand Prairie, Texas, with all the well-known WCMX riders there. As I came off the ramp, I was trying to get higher, and I came short of the landing zone, hit, bounced and landed on my shoulder. So, within 45 minutes of arriving at the competition site, I tore my rotator cuff and didn’t get to compete.
“This championship with people from Brazil, Germany, the U.S. and Canada isn’t just a competition for elite athletes but also holds clinics to teach people how to ride their wheelchairs and learn to do some of the simpler and advanced tricks. Prizes are given out even for basic competitions. More than a dozen professional WCMX riders were there and taught everyone who came to learn how to ride and fly. Although I couldn’t compete, I watched the competition and helped coach the other athletes who came to the various clinics.
“At the Alliance Skate Park in Grand Prairie, where the competition is held, twice a month WCMX holds clinics for people who ride wheelchairs to learn how to roll and fly like we do. Many young people who were born with disabilities or injured at a young age often sit on the sidelines and watch other kids do things they’re interested in. WCMX enables these young people to be their own teams and their own coaches.
Once the kids start learning to use their wheelchairs like bicycles, they become the coolest people at the skate park.
I feel like my wheelchair is my bicycle, and the only difference is that the wheelchair is strapped to my butt. I’m on the wheelchair, riding it and making it do what I want it to do. WCMX provides a sport and competitions that allow young people to learn to do tricks, stunts and activities that are far cooler than the sports in which their classmates compete. They can go to a skate park and often be the main attraction.
Going down a ramp and attempting tricks builds confidence in these individuals and drastically improves their feelings of self worth. Doing the impossible is worth doing. If you ride your wheelchair at a skate park and throw tricks, you will fall. But quickly you learn that falling isn’t a bad thing. When I ride, I’m fully padded up with knee pads, elbow pads, a spine protector and a full-face helmet. When people see me fall, they can’t believe I can flip back up and keep going.”
A Second Chance: My Blessing in Disguise
“I view my accident as one of the greatest blessings I could’ve ever received,” Diaz reports. ‘Since my accident, I’ve been able to do things that never would have been possible before my accident, and the impossible is one thing in life that’s worth doing. On April 12, 2011, I was in a really bad mood and had been depressed for a couple of months. I was going through some tough times with my job and my girlfriend. One day, when I was at Walmart with my girlfriend, we had a fight.
“I got out of the car, went across the street and tried to kill myself. I stood out in the middle of the road waiting for a car to run over me, but to my disappointment, the cars went around me. I noticed that some cars were coming down a big bridge and decided to time my stepping out in front of them, so that they couldn’t miss me.
“I jumped in front of an oncoming car that hit me going 55 mph and knocked me up in the air. I hit the asphalt, and the next car ran over me. My body was pretty much destroyed, but my head didn’t have any damage. I broke most of the bones in my body, including my femur, ribs, back, elbow, fingers, hands, legs, pelvis and tailbone and I was paralyzed from the waist down. My lungs collapsed, and I had road rash from head to toe. I was airlifted to the hospital.
“Afterwards, I didn’t talk to my girlfriend for 4 months, we got back together for about a month, and then we broke up for good. Through that process, I started telling myself, ‘I don’t need anyone else in my life to complicate it.’ I went through therapy and started working out.
“While in the hospital, I’d lost 80 pounds and was totally skinny. Although I decided that I must be still alive for a purpose, I didn’t know what that purpose was. I focused on my health and building up my body.Today I fly above the world, and I’m a licensed minister.
I recognize I’m blessed and appreciate the life I was so eager to give up.
“When I meet newly injured people, I always tell them to never give up but to learn to adapt and conquer. You’re here on this earth for a reason, and the point of your life is to figure out why you’re here, what you’re supposed to do and how to live your life to the fullest. Today, I take charge of my life and try to succeed every day.”
Diaz Attempts the Impossible in His Wheelchair
“I always attempt to do what most people say is impossible,” Diaz mentions. “Whether or not I complete this impossible task, the attempt still is worthwhile. Don’t limit yourself. I want to change the stereotype that most people have of what people in wheelchairs can and can’t do. When I see a limiting factor for most wheelchair users, instead of saying, ‘I can’t do that,’ I start figuring out ways to accomplish that task. On my YouTube channel, I try to show people who ride wheelchairs how they can do things from everyday living to some bizarre stuff.
One of the first big challenges that I set out to accomplish was climbing stairs with my wheelchair. At first I didn’t have the right technique and wasn’t strong enough to accomplish this. But 3 years ago, I finally went up 15 steps in my wheelchair and amazed myself. To overcome most obstacles, you simply practice and develop the willpower that you will do it. For me, everything is accessible in my wheelchair without any special adaptations.
When going downstairs, I can jump over them and land flat, or I can bump down them one at a time.
Airports have a lot of security, and a security person at escalators usually will tell people riding wheelchairs that they must use the elevators. However, you can learn the right way to ride up and down an escalator while riding your wheelchair. Watch this video:
“I went to a surf convention that was held downstairs in a convention center. When I reached the escalator, a 70 year old lady stepped in front of me and said, ‘You can’t go down the escalator. It’s too dangerous. You may fall and get hurt.’ I said to her, ‘What’s the difference between me and you? You look like you can get hurt just walking.’ When the elderly lady wasn’t looking, I rolled onto the escalator. All the way down I was saying, ‘Look how dangerous this is – see all my bruises.’
“When I went to Puerto Rico to visit my family, a guy didn’t want to let me get on the escalators. But I got on anyway. He then pushed the escalator’s stop button. So, I just rolled down each step one at a time. Although the people at the airport were mad at me, I believe in equal rights. Why should I take a slow, old elevator when I can get to where I want to go faster by using the escalator? I’ll take a stand – no pun intended – anytime someone wants to limit my access. I’m a stereotype buster. When I started learning to ride an escalator, I had a spotter to make sure I didn’t fall. I ride an escalator with my wheelchair turned backwards.
Climbing Into Big Trucks
One of my first YouTube videos was of me climbing into a truck that was jacked up off its tires. I climbed from my WMCX wheelchair into the driver’s seat of the truck. If I see a big truck today, I’ll ask the owner, ‘Do you care if I climb into your truck?’ If he says okay, then that’s what I’ll do. Last year, I climbed into the world’s largest street legal truck that was 12 feet tall and up off the ground about 4 or 5 feet. The truck was so big I could roll my wheelchair under it, but I climbed it too.
Climbing a 30-Foot Rope in a Crossfit Gym
I see my world as a playground. When I want to do something, I just do it. Today I go to a Crossfit gym to work out. However, the first time I went, I noticed a 30 foot climbing rope in the middle of the gym and asked the owner, ‘Do you mind if I climb the rope?’ I strapped myself solidly into my wheelchair, climbed all the way to the top of the rope with my wheelchair on my butt and then climbed back down. The owner of the gym told me, ‘Holy crap, you went all the way to the top. Well, you can some to my gym, work out and climb that rope anytime you’re interested.’ So, I got a free membership to a Crossfit gym.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tolSRklV_8o.
Jerry Diaz’s Dream
Although many people identify themselves with an accident, an injury, an illness or a disease that has caused them to ride a wheelchair, Diaz identifies himself with what he’s trying to become. “One day I’d like to travel the world and be a performer in the Nitro Circus like Aaron Fotheringham. When I go to a skate park, I usually ride my chair for 6-8 hours, 3 days per week. I’m hoping to start clinics too in different skate parks around the area where I live and teach young people how to ride a wheelchair instead of sitting in one.”
Note: Jerry’s flips and tricks are not for everyone, and are risky. Please consult with your physician and use common sense before attempting something that may be dangerous for your specific condition.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.