Wheels of fortune
At the Flow Skatepark on the East Side, Brandon Thomas teeters on the edge of a U-shaped miniramp known as a half-pipe. In a kneeling position on his skateboard, he leans forward, eyes downward, and plunges. Within seconds, he is ascending the other side of the ramp, using his hands to lift himself in the air and flip the board horizontally underneath his body before board and body reunite at the top. “I’m landing kickflips constantly, dude,” Thomas says. “Double varials — I never thought I’d be able to do that.”
Kickflips and varials — skateboarding maneuvers that involve skipping into the air and flipping the board with one’s feet — are relatively basic ground tricks for even moderately talented skaters.
Thomas’ modified versions, though, are much more remarkable: The North Side teenager has mastered the moves without the use of his legs.
The 17-year-old has a rare congenital condition called arthrogryposis, characterized by shortened or curved joints in the arms, legs or both.
“I got really lucky and got it (only) in my legs,” he said. “It doesn’t affect anything else.”
Thomas can move and feel his legs — “So when I go skateboarding and I, like, jump stairs and hit my knees the wrong way, it’s a screamer” — but gets virtually no use out of them.
Brandon’s mother, Carol Bilderback of Worthington, said the second of her three children learned very young not to let his disability keep him down
“I never let him be handicapped,” she said. “The doctors always said he couldn’t do this and do that, but I always let him do this and do that.”
She recalled walking outside one day to find a 2-year-old Brandon, who had sneaked out of the house, sitting atop the family van. She realized then that his condition wouldn’t be an obstacle.
“It’s not a disability; it’s an ability,” she said. “He can do everything except walk.”
Mrs. Thomas said she is the one who bought Brandon a skateboard.
“It’s just the love of his life.”
So fond of the board has Brandon become, in fact, that he uses it routinely to get around — a notion that can make Mrs. Thomas uneasy.
“I’d rather him be in his wheelchair, but he thinks being on a skateboard is faster,” she said. “It’s when he’s on the streets that it makes me nervous.”
Relying on his arms to do the work his legs cannot, Brandon took to the sport of skateboarding when he was 4, eventually teaching himself to walk on his hands. By age 10, he was going off ramps and learning tricks.
Now he has dozens of moves in his repertoire — including the “handstand push-up,” his own invention, which requires him to lift his body up with his hands, then do vertical push-ups on the board while moving.
“I consider myself one of the very first handicapped skaters in the United States,” he said. “I’ve been a lot of places — different states — and nobody has ever seen it.”
At the Extremity Games in July in Michigan — the only U.S. extreme-sports competition for athletes with disabilities — skateboarding drew six competitors, spokeswoman Beth Geno said.
” Inspiring — that’s the word we keep hearing,” Geno said. “It’s so inspiring to see someone without the use of their limbs compete.”
Thomas has found inspiration in Ogi de Souza, a Brazilian skateboarder with no legs whose tricks he often mimics.
Thomas has competed in Columbus against able-bodied skaters but not in a disabled-specific competition such as the Extremity Games. He hopes one day to skate professionally.
“My dream is to just really get out there and show the world I’m handicapped and I’m a skateboarder. I’m grinding rails; I’m doing the stuff that I really want to do.”
Another dream, he said, is to start a business (before he turns 25) to help disabled people become active.
“I wish I could just go around the world and estimate how many people sit in their house and have a disability,” he said. “Or, like, even normal people who just sit in their house all day: ‘I wanna do this, and I wanna do that.’ They’re thinking it, but they’re not doing it.”
Thomas told a story about a mother and her 9-year-old son who approached him at a grocery store in Atlanta to ask for an autograph because they, in watching him ride his skateboard, figured he might one day be famous.
“She started tearing up real bad,” he recalled. “Her son, he said, ‘Dude, I wanna be just like you!’ It just put a big smile on my face.
“When someone comes up to you and says you’re an inspiration, it really gets to your heart. You’re just like, ‘Thank you very much for saying that,’ because not too many people come up to you daily and tell you you’re an inspiration to them.”
Drawing such a conclusion has taken Thomas years of discovery in the wake of many challenges.
Most recently, he dropped out of Thomas Worthington High School and is living in an apartment with his father since his parents separated. In addition, his grandmother battled leukemia.
Still, he keeps moving forward — always with the help of a skateboard.
“In my life, I’ve had a lot of hard things to deal with,” Thomas said. “But I gotta overcome that and not let it bring me down, especially in my skateboarding career.
“That’s the biggest thing right now for me.”