Katherine Beattie recently became the first female WCMX athlete to perform a back flip in her WCMX chair. Photo by Joe Cutcher.
She's behind the scenes on NCIS: New Orleans, but in your face when strapping into her WCMX chair
If Katherine Beattie was a character on a hit TV series like the one she’s written for, NCIS: New Orleans, she’d be traveling the world, seeing the sights and meeting new people.
“Maybe she’d be a spy, since everyone loves a good spy show,” Beattie says. “And no one would ever expect the spy on the wheelchair!”
But since she’s not a spy character on a TV show, Beattie gets her thrills by competing in wheelchair motocross (WCMX). WCMX is a fast-growing extreme wheelchair sport that involves doing tricks and flips like those performed by BMX bikers and skateboarders at a skatepark.
The 30-year-old La Cañada, Calif., native, was born with cerebral palsy and is the first female WCMX athlete to land a backflip.
In summer 2014, she went to Woodward West action sports camp in Tehachapi, Calif., where she had her first opportunity to try flipping into a foam pit. After watching her friends land their flips, she “figured it couldn’t be that hard.”
“On my first attempt, I dropped in, pulled as hard as I could and ended up going straight up in the air and straight down,” she says. “I didn’t rotate at all! It ended up taking seven hours and probably more than 20 tries to get the full rotation that first day.”
Crawling in and out of the foam pit wore her out, so she decided she would wait to try flipping onto resi, which is a harder surface but not as hard as concrete or wood.
Katherine Beattie emerges from a tube during some WCMX practice. Photo by Joe Cutcher.
She tried again that winter at the Daniel Dehrs Action Sports Complex in North Carolina but couldn’t get the speed she needed.
Then in April 2015, a week before the first WCMX world championships, she went back to Woodward West.
“Surprisingly, my flips to foam were going very well,” she says. “(My friend) Blake (Simpson) didn’t want to waste any more energy struggling to get out of the foam pit, so he decided to go to resi and landed his flip first try! Seeing him accomplish that so easily hyped me up to the point that I knew I was going to pull it that day.”
After four attempted flips on resi, she finally landed a full rotation.
“It took me countless tries over eight months to pull off the backflip, so now whenever I attempt one, I have a moment where I think, ‘What if I’ve forgotten how to do this? It’s not going to work,’ but that muscle memory kicks in and I have no problem getting that rotation.”
An avid action sports enthusiast since her teens, Beattie was always willing to try anything that involved wheels or a board. At age 13, she had a bilateral hamstring lengthening, and while it straightened her legs, she never had the strength, balance or stamina required for sports like surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and skiing.
“While I still loved all those things (skateboarding especially), I figured my time had passed, and I instead focused my energy on art, writing and just being a teenager,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was 25 that I discovered it was still possible to skateboard, and with the support of the disabled/spinal-cord injury community, I got back into surfing and eventually WCMX.”
In 2011, Beattie attended Life Rolls On (LFO) and saw WCMX athletes in person for the first time. That year, she participated in a standing skate clinic with Jim Muir and decided she would learn how to skate independently.
“The next year at LRO, I was competing in the adaptive skate contest when I met Mike Box (of Box Wheelchairs),” she says. “We were in line for the restroom, and I was sitting on the floor because I didn’t have a chair. We talked, and I was able to convince my parents to split the cost of a WCMX chair with me because I told them it was sports equipment.”
Three-and-a-half years later, adaptive skating took a back seat to WCMX competitions.
However, the road to make her record-setting backflip had quite a few hurdles.
“The biggest hurdle for me was other people getting used to the fact that I was using a wheelchair, and to get them to stop apologizing, feeling sorry for me or thinking that things had somehow gotten ‘worse,’” Beattie says. “My wheelchair is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me! One of the best parts is being a member of such a fun, active, supportive community of other wheelchair users.”
That community includes her friends Simpson and Rico Reyes, who were there to witness her first backflip.
Beattie has seen the sport of WCMX grow from a small, divergent group to a Southern California contingent of all ages and abilities who ride together at least once a month.
“When I first started … I had to teach myself pretty much everything, but I’d watch YouTube videos of Jon Stark, Darryl Tait, Christiaan Bailey, Aaron Fotheringham and David Lebuser and try to copy what they did,” Beattie says. “Then there are my girls Quinn Waitley and Ella Frech, who I pretty much forced into competing with me so I wouldn’t be the only girl in the contests. They’re really carrying the torch for girls in WCMX.”
Beattie credits Jamey Perry as her biggest inspiration. They began riding together about eight months ago when Perry still had a standard wheelchair.
“She was so eager to progress in the sport that I would give her my Box chair during our sessions just to see what she could pull off,” Beattie says. “She ended up getting her own WCMX chair and now we ride together a few days a week. She picks up tricks that took me three years to learn in an average of 30 minutes. We are constantly pushing each other to progress and try bigger, harder, more creative tricks, and beyond that we have developed a great friendship.”
In the future, Beattie hopes WCMX will rise to the level of skateboarding, BMX and scooter, and “for wheelchairs to be so commonplace in skateparks that no one even bats and eye when we buckle our helmets and drop in.”
“I’d love for WCMX to get to the point where you could roll up to the skatepark on any given day and see a bunch of other WCMX riders there, maybe even some that you don’t know,” she says.
For young wheelchair athletes in any sport, Beattie says there will always be people out there who want to help you achieve your goals. Her motto: “Don’t let the fact that you’ll never be the best stop you from being the best that you can be.”
You can see Beattie live this year as she competes in the 2016 WCMX World Chamionships in Texas in April.