This Chair was Made for Skatin’

By Marina Furbush & Marie Hogan

Freshman Garnett Silver-Hall’s new wheelchair is bright green and already covered in scratches. It’s the first wheelchair he’s bought himself. “The state [and insurance] pays for everyday chairs for people in wheelchairs,” he said. “But they’re usually not fitted that well. They’re fitted so that you can grow into them.” For Silver-Hall, who’s a growing star in the emerging world of Wheelchair Motocross (WCMX), where skaters use wheelchairs instead of traditional bikes or skateboards to complete tricks, a chair that he’d grow into wasn’t going to cut it. “You want a chair to be an extension of your body,” he said.

At first, he planned to apply for funds to get a wheelchair better suited to skating. “I was trying to get a grant,” he said. “But you had to be involved in the sport for at least six months and it’s pretty hard to do chair skating without the right chair, so I couldn’t really do that.” Silver-Hall, determined to get a chair that would allow him to practice the sport, turned to the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. “I was expecting it to take at least half a year, maybe even a year, to raise all the money,” he said. “We did it in two and a half months. It was crazy.” 

Silver-Hall’s relationship with the chair is one of love at first sight. “I saw it for the first time… [and] I was like, ‘I can’t wait until this gets shipped to me.’ Couldn’t wait,” he gushed. “[Getting in the chair] felt great. It was like buying a new car.”

Since its arrival, Silver-Hall has intensified his dedication to WCMX and drawn praise from those within the sport, including founder Aaron Fotheringham. Under an Instagram photo of the two together, their chairs the same vibrant green, a comment by Randy Harlan, a WCMX skater who rides with Silver-Hall, reads: “Garnett RIPS! Been riding for less than a year and he’s already on par with some of the pros! Can’t wait to ride with him again soon.”

That skill is not due to lack of falling on Silver-Hall’s part, evidenced by the wear to his chair. Bad falls and injuries aren’t just commonplace in WCMX, and skateboarding in general, but also integral to the mastery process. When Silver-Hall starts learning a new trick, he fully expects to fall a few times before landing it. “I thankfully haven’t gotten hurt very bad yet,” Silver-Hall said, as though he felt a major injury was inevitable. “[But] I think you get hurt about the same amount as if you were on a bike or skateboard.”

The rush he gets from succeeding, though, makes it all worth it. “The feeling of finally landing a trick, even if it’s just one time, it just feels really good to finally land something,” he said. “…I was trying one trick–I actually haven’t landed it yet–but every time I’d fall pretty hard doing it. But with all the adrenaline I wouldn’t really think about it, I’d just do it again.”

When Silver-Hall falls while perfecting a move, people often rush to help him. “I guess people have the inclination to help people in wheelchairs, which is good a lot of the times,” he said. “…[But] it’s awkward sometimes, because everyone starts staring at you, and you’re like ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, continue what you’re doing’…I mean, if I fall and I’m not seriously hurt, I just get back up and keep going.”

If I fall and I’m not seriously hurt, I just get back up and keep going.

Because WCMX is only around ten years old, there’s lots of room for innovation. Even Fotheringham, whom Silver-Hall calls his “idol,” is still figuring it out. His popular Instagram page boasts just as many falls and failures as it does perfect executions. “It’s so new that you can almost create your own tricks, which is really fun,” Silver-Hall said. The sport allows for more invention than more traditional team sports, which is part of what draws Silver-Hall to it. “I love it,” he said. “It’s such a rush. I mean, there’s a rush in basketball or hockey, but those are both team sports and WCMX is more of a solo sport, so you can experiment a lot more.”

Silver-Hall has created his own trick, which garnered him his nickname “G-Wheel.” It happened by accident while he was practicing. “I was trying to do a different [trick] and messed up, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool,’” he said. “….It’s kind of like a cartwheel, almost. You lean to the side and then bring the chair off the ground with your hands, then go back down.”

In addition to his involvement in WCMX, Silver-Hall is an avid sled hockey  and wheelchair basketball player with adaptive sports program Bay Area Outdoor Recreation Program, or BORP. He’s noticed the positive effects the adaptive sports community has on those involved. “There’s a lot of smaller children in the programs I do, and a lot of kids come in that [haven’t] met a lot of other kids with disabilities,” he said. “They feel kind of alone, so it helps with like connecting with people.”

Silver-Hall playing sled hockey
Silver-Hall plays sled hockey. Photo courtesy of Trooper Johnson.

His hockey and basketball coach, four-time basketball Paralympian Trooper Johnson, remembers seeing Silver-Hall his first time on the rink. At the time, Silver-Hall was eight and had just started playing hockey. “When I first met him he was on a skateboard at Oakland Ice Center as he wanted to try sled hockey. Because of the limits in function with his arms, I wasn’t even sure he would be able to skate,” Johnson said. “He tried, liked it, and kept coming back.  Over the next few years he started skating faster than any of the other kids in the program and they were asking him to try wheelchair basketball.” Silver-Hall has since been invited to a Paralympic Training Camp for sled hockey in New York next year, and he hopes to make the U.S. Paralympic team.

Silver-Hall, who was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that limits the function of joints, is known in adaptive sports as a “quad.” Unlike paraplegics, who can freely move their head and arms movement in all four of his limbs is affected, which means that he’s had to find his own style and technique for each sport. You can do a lot more if you’re like a para or an amputee, something like that,” Silver-Hall said. “Quads are usually pretty limited in what they can do.”

Johnson recalled that Silver-Hall was originally hesitant to play basketball. “He had always been reluctant because he couldn’t push his chair normally,” Johnson said. “He tried it, figured out how to adapt his push stroke to accommodate his limitations, and also found out he was pretty fast.”

“[Having a rare condition] forces you to figure stuff out on your own a little bit more,” Silver-Hall said.

‘[Having a rare condition] forces you to figure stuff out on your own a little bit more.’

As Silver-Hall moves into the next level with his athletic aspirations, he’s become more aware of the lack of resources for Paralympians. “For Paralympic sports you need a lot more equipment,” he said. “For training for track, you can go run the mile or something like that, but for Paralympic you need to buy a track chair to practice with. So like, you exert more cost with your own stuff just to train.” In addition to the extra cost, Paralympic athletes get less compensation. According to CNN, Olympic gold medalists receive $25,000 from the U.S. Olympic Committee while Paralympic athletes receive a mere $5,000 for a gold medal. They also have a harder time finding corporate sponsors. “I feel it’s pretty unfair,” Silver-Hall said. “Paralympic athletes work just as hard, or harder, sometimes.”

Silver-Hall doesn’t let his dedication to sports engulf his life. He’s in a band called The Special Guests with his friends, who he grew up with in Bolinas. Although they originally stuck to covers of ‘80s rock classics, they’ve started moving into original pieces, with, Silver-Hall cautions, a few bumps in the road. “We tried writing a song, a while ago, and then we realized we were doing so much copyright [infringement], it was incredible,” he said. “It’s weird, when you’re trying to write a song, just like whatever comes to your mind, you’re like, ‘Oh this is good,’ and then you go listen to music later and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is the song I was just writing.’”

A pair of drumsticks in the same signature green color as his WCMX wheelchair come with Silver-Hall everywhere he goes. However, Silver-Hall didn’t originally play the drums. “I always did keyboard, because my music teacher when I was little thought it’d be easier for me, to play the keyboard, so I learned how to play piano and keyboard and everything,” he said. “And then…our drummer was sick one day and I tried it out, and I was like, ‘this is really fun.’”

Silver-Hall has music in his blood: his dad is a musician who played for years with reggae and hip hop singer Michael Franti, while his mom is a concert promoter. “We’ve been going to concerts since I was like two, and everything like that. So I feel like that’s kind of how I got into music, it kind of just came naturally to me,” he said.

Drummers are rarely the most famous members of a band, but Silver-Hall doesn’t mind that, though he stresses that they’re essential to the music. “I feel like [drummers] don’t get as much hype, but you couldn’t have a band without a drummer really,” he said.

When he’s playing the drums, Silver-Hall gets a rush similar to the one he gets through sports and WCMX. “It takes you to a different place when you’re playing, like in the groove of a song,” he said. “… you really have to focus on keeping that beat going, so yeah. At that point like everything else kind of fades out.”

In his quest for that rush, Silver-Hall’s experience is similar to that of more conventional skaters. But while Silver-Hall says that the fellow skaters he meets are supportive, they can’t provide the kind of community that group adaptive sports do. “A lot of things I do are pretty new sports … [I’m] showing people for the first time,” he said. Silver-Hall enjoys fielding the many questions he gets from curious onlookers. “If I have a question, I like just being able to know the answer,” Silver-Hall explained. “So I feel like other people have that too. If someone wants to know, I love answering their questions.”

‘If  I have a question, I like just being able to know the answer. So I feel like other people have that too. If someone wants to know, I love answering their questions.’

When surrounded by other people in wheelchairs, however, Silver-Hall gets a break from conversation focused on his disability. “We don’t talk about being in a wheelchair a lot, we just have regular conversations with each other,” he said.

Silver-Hall says that trips to NWBA away games and events can quickly turn into prank wars between him and his teammates. “We use our disabilities to have fun with each other too…we’ll pull pranks on each other and stuff like that,” he said. One prank involved duct-taping a friend to his chair while he was sleeping. “He woke up and he was stuck to a chair,” Silver-Hall said with a laugh. “I think he like freaked out a little bit.”

Another one of Silver-Hall’s favorite pranks involved the theft of a prosthetic leg. “[A member of the team] was taking a nap one time after a game, and he sleeps with his leg off,” Silver-Hall said. “So I took his leg and I put it in our friend’s room and he didn’t know, but he found it eventually. And then he found me in the hallway and he took me out of my chair and he took my wheels and left me in the hallway.”

Through adaptive athletic conferences and games, Silver-Hall says he’s been able to meet at least six other athletes who also have arthrogryposis; outside of adaptive sports, he doesn’t know anyone with the rare condition. For Silver-Hall, the sports conferences have an instant community feel. He was particularly struck by a scene at the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Nationals in Kentucky last year. “There was a giant convention center where like everyone was in a wheelchair. There were probably more people in wheelchairs there than there were people not,” he said.

It was at an adaptive sports camp that Silver-Hall first met Fotheringham. “I didn’t know he was going to be there … And, Aaron [Fotheringham] is like my idol, I fangirl over Aaron,” Silver-Hall said, barely holding back a smile. “I was playing basketball, and I saw him by the door, and I was like, ‘That’s Aaron Fotheringham.’ And I remember it was our turn to go to his group next and I was so excited.”

Silver-Hall and Fotheringham after skating together for the first time
Silver-Hall and Fotheringham after skating together for the first time. Photo courtesy of Garnett Silver-Hall.

Silver-Hall was already interested in WCMX, but that day convinced him to take the next step: buying a chair. “That’s the first time I saw one of these [WCMX] chairs, actually, in person, and I was hooked ever since that day,” he said. “That’s the day that made me want to really do this. I remember he like jumped down like five stairs, just like by himself. I was just like, this is cray.  Then he went on like one wheel and took his other one off. Just did some like crazy stuff, and I was like, I want to do that.”

Without meeting Fotheringham, Silver-Hall may never have gotten into WCMX. The same can be said for adaptive sports, which he only tried after a chance encounter with another family. “I was in a movie theater one day,” he said. “…Another girl in a wheelchair with her parents came up. They told me about this program [Bay Area Outreach and Recreation, or BORP] and they said I should come next week so I said okay, try it out, I came one day and I’ve been doing it ever since.” Even though Silver-Hall had heard of adaptive sports before, he hadn’t been motivated to try it before that conversation, which he says is common among wheelchair users. “I guess a lot of people think they can’t do it, because that’s kind of a mentality that’s forced upon you, to think you can’t do something,” he said. “Growing up there’s a lot of stuff that people in wheelchairs can’t do.”

Today, whenever Silver-Hall sees another kid in a wheelchair, he makes sure to pass along the favor that the family in the theater, and later, Aaron Fotheringham, did for him. “Whenever I see … another kid in a wheelchair, I’ll give him the card for BORP [Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program] and like tell him about, encourage him to come,” he said. “I love doing that kind of stuff. Just showing people that they can do a lot more than they think they can do.”

‘I love doing that kind of stuff. Just showing people that they can do a lot more than they think they can do.’

Photo by Ethan Swope