What’s the right wheelchair for cheerleading?
I have often been asked which wheelchair is the best for cheerleading in, what are the special features of my own wheelchair, and what would I advise others to look for when choosing theirs?
Firstly, because every athlete is unique, each athletes needs and requirements will be unique and different with regards to sizing and style of wheelchair. With the right adaptations and support it should be possible to cheerlead from any wheelchair as the actions of the athletes are what is important, not what technology they’re sitting on. In this blog I’ll be mainly looking at what has helped me over my last 10 years of stunting from my wheelchair, what I may have disliked about some of the wheelchairs I was using before and why I requested each of the changes we made both times I got a new device. I’m only going to focus on the chair I use for stunting as the needs I had for dancing were rather different and deserve their own separate blog, which may eventually get written too.
Both of the wheelchairs I have bought to stunt in have been purchased under direction and awesome technical advice of Ian Laker, from GBL Wheelchairs here in the UK. They and any other manufacturers and suppliers mentioned aren’t in any way sponsoring this post, but I feel it’s worth giving credit where it’s due. When I first went to buy a mobility device with cheerleading in mind I had a few ideas what I might need but not how to manage the process and Ian was a stalwart and confident adviser throughout, giving his personal experience as an athlete and wheelchair user for many years himself. The wheelchair I currently use is an adapted RGK XRT (insert picture) I bought it in 2016 after my last chair (with me in it) was involved in a hit and run by a taxi in Bromley, snapping the front of the chair and twisting the frame to a point where it wasn’t worth salvaging. This wheelchair cost me somewhere in the region of around £4000, which we funded with help from family, fans and a little insurance that covered the last chair, I mention this so that there’s no illusion that buying bespoke mobility equipment is cheap. I think if I was ever to move away from cheerleading and to try to find another avenue to help bring more equality for disabled people I’d be very tempted to go into wheelchair manufacture to try to solve the difficulty of such high costs to the individual for something which is so required to support their daily life.
My chair has it’s front castor wheels pulled further forward than is normal, usually the castors on a wheelchair are set back behind a persons foot plate to assist in making tighter and smaller turning circles. Mine have been pulled forward in front of my feet to stop the chair from tipping forward when the weight of my flyer is loaded to the front, for walk in, toss hands, group stunts, etc. This also supports stability if the flyers weight were to push forward of the base when in any prep or extended level stunts. I’ve worked with a lot of athletes at a lower level who don’t have this adaptation to their wheelchair in place, and they get on just fine but I’m yet to see what will happen when they move onto higher level and more unassisted stunts. I recall the difference from my first ever wheelchair, supplied for free by the NHS but not in any way built for my cheerleading needs, which didn’t have the adaptation. There was a huge difference that stability made for me loading stunts and I don’t think I’d be happy to go back to something with the wheels behind my feet. I also personally find this alteration helpful when moving around generally as it means if I were to bump into a wall or other objects, as sometimes happens, then the chair hits first and I’m protected, rather than my feet or knees being the first thing to impact the object which wouldn’t do my pain condition any good at all.
One of the most important features of my wheelchair, in terms of stunting assistance, is the two point anti-tip I have which attaches to the back. It’s the same style they use in Rugby and basketball, in that it’s a solid bar which protrudes from the axle bar to behind the main wheels and has it’s own castors and small wheels which reach all the way to the floor. It’s vital for continued stunting from a wheelchair that athletes have something similar in place for their own chair, as the possibility of the wheelchair tipping over backwards is high enough without the additional weight and altered center of gravity brought about by holding a flyer above their head, and if they were to fall in that fashion the flyer will likely land directly on top of them injuring both the wheelchair user and then the flyer much more. This is such a vital adaptation that it’s mentioned within the safety rules for ParaCheer divisions, though there is a provision to instead have another athlete support the balance of the chair from behind this is only really to manage the cost to any new athlete who may not have yet been able to get themselves a properly suitable wheelchair when they first start out in the sport. It is possible to get these anti-tips with only one wheel on the back in the center but I have found that with that arrangement there is still a possibility for the chair to tip backwards if the weight presses into either rear corner so a two wheeled version is preferable. That corner tip again mostly happens in the more dynamic stunts, I first noticed the problem myself when training assisted rewinds back in 2011, the first time my flyer hit my hands too early so the force of the stunt was still going backwards instead of right down I flipped over and pinged out from underneath her leaving her to land where I’d just been and me on my front like a flipped turtle a couple of meters away.
Wheel camber is the degree by which the bottom half of the main wheels protrudes further than the top half, leaving the wheel on an angle from the user. This is usually put in place to assist a person with quick turns so is helpful in chairs used for things like Tennis, Basketball, and Dancing. A high camber also aids sideways stability which is important in cheerleading (especially with partner stunting from your chair) but the downside of a larger camber is that spotters, base supports, and other team mates can’t get as close to you and the stunt to assist with it, also people will often see the top edge of the wheel and expect it to go directly down from there. The way we solved this difficulty with my chairs is to have the wheels spaced slightly further out from the chair than usual but to only then have the camber set at a very minor 6 degrees so it avoids anyone tripping over the protruding bottom edge. It ensures that I can pop the flyer down to my sides and have appropriate assistance from a spotter without the wheels getting too much in the way. It makes it slightly harder in day to day life, as I use the one chair for both cheerleading any my daily activities, as it means it’s slightly harder to fit through doorways and I have to watch my knuckles a little but it’s worth the payoff for more stability in my stunts. I still find that falling sideways is the most likely way I’ll got these days when a stunt goes wrong so keep an eye out for that when first starting higher level dynamic stunting, and make sure your spotters are still attentive of the flyer rather than of you as you’re both better off that the flyer isn’t landing on you while you’re prone than that you might be saved from tipping sideways in the first place.
Brakes are of course super important too. The day someone invents a set of wheelchair brakes which are stable a solid enough to really stop me moving when we throw our dynamic stunts is a day I’ll celebrate wildly. At present I use scissor brakes whose handles tuck away under the wheelchair behind my legs. I’ve tried a number of different styles, the standard lever style had too many protruding parts and often got caught up in the flyer or in my hands as I moved, the quick release brakes though faster to engage after moving to a new position were also too weak to hold up too much impact and would often be accidentally released as a spotter or other base bumped into them during a stunt. These scissor brakes are the current best of a bad bunch but they degrade easily and I find I have to replace them at present about twice a year, they also tend to shift in their housing quite often meaning I have to readjust them to ensure they’re still solid enough to stunt with. I also strap myself in to my chair using a wheelchair basketball style waist strap, it’s basically two snowboarding click straps locked together, and really holds me solidly.
I have a solid J3 backrest on my current chair. I really like the stability it offers as the fabric style back rests tended to shift and relax a little too much with wear so my body position would end up slouching and I couldn’t rely on it being in the same place every time. It’s not a requirement but it’s definitely a bonus. The only other main difference between the structure of my wheelchair and a standard off the shelf XRT is that I’m told the bars and welds they’ve used to create it are reinforced to take more of the impacts and punishment we put it through. Wheelchairs are usually rated safe up to about 150kg for regular use, but that is of course rather under estimated and they’re tested to about 3 times that use to ensure they’re safe. The extra impact and weight that a wheelchair takes when involved in this or any other sport does effect it’s lifespan for sure, I’d say I’ve only got about 3 years good use out of my wheelchairs before things start to go ping and I’ve got to be a lot more attentive of the servicing and repair. Finally I’ve also personally made sure that wherever possible the wheelchair is padded with thick foam to help support and soften any unexpected impact that might occur. The one thing I dislike about my current wheelchair is those protruding front castors make a very bad target for the flyer to land on and hurt themselves, in 2017 sadly Chantal did just that after being placed wrong by an inattentive spotter when we came down form a stunt. She landed with her foot squarely on the front castor and damaged her ankle badly. When I next get a replacement I’m going to have a look to see if there’s a way they can adjust the knee bars to come down differently and deflect that from happening in future. It’s definitely something I will be attentive of when looking at future cheerleading wheelchair design that every bit of surface is as tucked in and out of the way as is possible so there’s nothing for a flyer or friend to catch themselves on during this wonderful activity we do.
In summary to adapt your wheelchair for dynamic cheerleading stunts ensure the front castors are pulled forward, the wheels have a slight camber and a spacer widening them from the sides of the chair, you have a solid and reliable set of brakes, something to strap yourself in with, a reinforced frame, a two point anti-tip with wheels that reach the floor, and padding on every bit of it you can. I hope this helps those of you who need to use a wheelchair for your mobility and now have the opportunity to participate in our wonderful sport thanks to the creation of the ParaCheer divisions. Maybe it’s also helped to inspire some budding inventor out there to find a way to solve some of the problems we still have and eventually find “the perfect chair for the sport” not that something like that really exists as, like we said, each athlete is unique and so too would each chair need to be.