Alex Kilba is like most 19-year-olds. He thinks about girls, gets impatient with Mom’s worrying, and enjoys the street cred he gets when he drops in to a steep incline at the McArthur Island skateboard park.
Where he stands out is what he rides in that graffiti covered concrete park — a wheelchair. And for that, he gets more respect than most.
Four years ago, Kilba saw a YouTube video of Aaron Fotheringham doing back flips in his wheelchair — a feat Fotheringham has repeated many times, including during the opening ceremonies of Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Paralympics.
It was a sight that would change the direction of Kilba’s life.
“I was pretty shocked,” he said, “and thought, ‘Holy crap! I want to do that. I’m doing that.’ ”
Just like Fotheringham, Kilba was born with spina bifida, a defect that happens in the first month of pregnancy when the spinal column doesn't close completely.
Typically, a spine grows from the top down and bottom up, joining in the middle. How mobile a person becomes when born with spina bifida depends on where along the spine the link did not join. The higher the lesion is on the back the less function, the lower the more function. Mobility issues can range from walking with a cane to thoracic issues causing breathing difficulties.
“He’s actually quite fortunate,” said Alex’s mother, Jan Alexandre.
“His level of lesion is in his lower lumbar so he has good abdominal and hand support. He has some sensation in his legs, more than most kids with SB, but he can’t weight bear.”
Kilba said he understands Fotheringham’s famous response to the question “What is spina bifida?” as “It’s an opportunity.”
“I think it’s an opportunity to show people that, ‘Yes I’m challenged, but that’s not going to get me down, I’m going to work on this.’ ”
Kilba is thankful that range of mobility and strength allows him to perform spins, hops, wheelies, jumps and any manner of manoeuvres rarely imagined by the able-bodied.
He can’t explain exactly why that athletic pursuit in particular spoke to him, but he’s clear on the inner boost it provides.
“It makes me one of the guys,” he said. “When people see what I’m doing, they talk to me differently. Instead of being in a chair, I’m on a chair.”
Skaters have taken notice of Kilba, according to skateboard retail store manager Staci Grant, whose store sponsors a skateboarding team.
“They thought it was really cool,” she said. “Really proud of him that he was doing that. That what happened to you is not holding you back from your passion.”
Although Kilba has never been seriously injured, as his interest in Harcore Parcore ramps up, so does his mother’s anxiety. She was first exposed to such wheelchair athletics through a video of Fotheringham’s single back flip.
“It was. ‘Oh that’s very cool,’ ” said Alexandre of her reaction. “There were a few crashes, but nothing that was too much of a big deal. But now he’s working on a double back flip, and in that video, they show the real ones where he falls and whacks his head and falls all funny and it’s, ‘No way, not in my lifetime.’ ”
Despite her instincts, she said, she won’t stand in his way.
“When he was very young we were exposed to adults who had spinal cord injuries, so I realized what it was going to take to make him a strong, independent individual,” said Alexandre.
“So it’s not that I want him to do it to be more included. I expect him to do it because that’s what people do.”
And now that he has found his passion, he’s got another, more common hurdle to overcome: money.
Kilba used his day-to-day chair while learning to navigate the skateboard course, but over the past 18 months, he has ramped up his efforts, so it’s time for a specialized chair.
Also, as his mother points out, he can’t afford to damage his $4,000 mode of transportation.
“Without it, he’s stranded,” she said.
For all his grousing over his mother’s worrying, Kilba credits her for his strength, confidence and independence. And it’s thanks to this character he’s been able to cope with not just the everyday challenges of being in the chair, but the 17 surgeries he has undergone to replace the pressure valve in his brain that drains spinal fluid that keeps being produced but has nowhere to go.
He’s also mourning the loss of his father, who died last June a few days after Kilba’s graduation from Sahali secondary school.
So with everything he has overcome, Kilba refuses to let something like mere money hold him back. He created a home-based business around the sport he’s named Hardcore Parcore — a play on parkour, an extreme activity that sees highly skilled individuals achieve amazing feats using structures found in everyday urban centres.
He now has a line of hoodies, hats and posters emblazoned with his motto: “What’s stopping you?” which he sells through word of mouth and occasionally in skate shops.
“If I can go to the skatepark, I can do pretty much anything, so ‘What’s stopping you?’ means find a way to deal with it and do what you want. If you’re really that into it, nothing’s stopping you.”
The posters portray photos of his feats taken for free by photograher and Sahali secondary graduate Pat Valade. Kilba hopes to update the posters with newer images, and with Valade now living in the Lower Mainland, he’s looking for a photographer eager to shoot a unique subject.
As his achievements pile up, Kilba may well become the inspiration for other boys or girls with their own seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Those wanting more information can contact Alex Kilba through Facebook.