Jonathan Stark of Penn Hills was a skilled skateboarder and BMX bike rider until he became paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when he was 18.
Five years later at 23, not only has he graduated from high school, but also he has turned his wheelchair into a "skateboard" and is again doing flips and other daring stunts. He's an extreme competitive wheelchair athlete in an emerging sport called WCMX (wheelchair moto-x), also known as chairskating.
He'll be part of a panel of athletes in wheelchairs speaking Tuesday night to follow the showing of the film "The Straight Line," the last movie of the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which began Saturday.
"The Straight Line" is a French-language film showing at 7 p.m. at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, 650 Schenley Drive, Oakland. It's about a young blind runner who has to put his trust in a coach who is an ex-con.
Mr. Stark has no coach; he puts all his trust in himself when he's training and competing. He has competed in the Life Rolls On "They Will Skate Again" $10,000 competition in California and other events.
"I treat my wheelchair like my bicycle," he said. "I wear a helmet and elbow and knee pads. I go up and down the stairs. I ride ramps."
He began doing skateboard-like stunts three years ago, when he'd "fall anywhere from 20 to 50 times a day" and got hurt a lot.
"I broke a few ribs. I also broke both of my feet. I had about 10 concussions," he said.
His Facebook page is filled with pictures of him doing daring feats, including coasting down the famous Blue Slide at Frick Park in Squirrel Hill and doing handplants on deep concrete curves at skate parks. "My favorite thing to do in the world ... is defy gravity on my wheelchair!" he wrote on Facebook.
He still falls, maybe five to 10 times a day, but he has learned how to do it gracefully.
"It's just learning the motion," he said. "You're not thinking of it as a wheelchair, but as a toy. ... Part of being a professional is not about being good but about being good falling. If you can't fall right, you get hurt."
The trick, Mr. Stark said, is to "learn how to catch yourself, so you don't hurt your hands."
Just last week, he finally learned how to do a back flip in his wheelchair -- a rare accomplishment. He did it for a friend making a college documentary film at Camp Woodward, located about 26 miles from State College, home of Penn State University.
"It was scary, but I have a goal and dreams to do," he said of learning to do the back flip.
"It was just like the opportunity to do this. This is my dream, what I've worked for the last three years. The amount of fear I had before the first time I tried it I almost threw up ... It was definitely the hardest experience I've had ... It was scarier than the day I wrecked my car. It's helping me be the person I want to be."
A self-taught welder and machinist, Mr. Stark is teaching himself to build wheelchairs and parts in his garage. He does small welding jobs for customers as well as to help keep his friends' wheelchairs rolling. He's living with his grandparents while he looks for a new home.
Mr. Stark, who attempted his first flip last Monday and completed it successfully last Tuesday, said he is excited about sharing his accomplishments on the panel to other people in wheelchairs..
"I'll just help people understand why I'm doing what I'm doing. You shouldn't hope the wheelchair will hold you back," he said. "People a lot of times let life get the best of them. ...
"Life goes on. You can still do whatever you put your mind on. People need to know first-hand ... that it's up to you to make things happen with things you want to do with life."
Pohla Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1228.