For middle-schoolers, having a bike is a big deal. For Matt Wilhelm, it’s a great way to connect with those same kids.
“The bike and my BMX tricks are the hook that draws them (the kids) in,” Wilhelm said. “It’s what gives me the respect and authority to speak and get their attention. The main reason I do what I do is to share my story. The bike is a great way to connect. Kids of any age can relate to a bike.”
And having a good connection is vital for Wilhelm, because he brings an important message as he travels to schools all across the country.
“When I was in junior high, I went through a pretty tough time, but my story has a happy ending,” Wilhelm said. “Too often, we hear stories about bullying that lead to suicide. Kids start to think that it (suicide) is an option. I’m here to show them you can come out stronger and more resilient.”
Wilhelm entered the gym at Highland Middle School on a Friday morning wearing a simple outfit comprised of a T-shirt and jeans.
“Clap your hands once and scream if you can hear me,” he shouted, trying to get the tired group of middle schoolers up and moving. The crowd’s shouts reverberated through the gym.
Wilhelm is a BMX Flatland rider and motivational speaker, known for his fast spinning and aggressive riding style. He tours more than 300 schools a year, speaking about bullying prevention, kindness, and imploring kids to never give up.
He came to Highland Middle School, Alhambra Primary, and Highland Elementary for Red Ribbon Week. Red Ribbon Week is an alcohol, tobacco, and other drug and violence prevention awareness campaign observed annually in October throughout the country.
“Kids need to hear a story with a happy ending,” Wilhelm said. “At the time (I was in middle school), I thought I was the only one going through this. I want to show the kids that you might go through a tough time, but it will make you stronger.”
Wilhelm grew up in Chicago with a passion for anything on wheels. With no skateparks and ramps near him, he went to the next best thing: BMX Flatland, a freestyle BMX riding style performed on smooth flat surfaces that does not include any ramps, jumps, or grindrails.
He’s world famous and is now using his skills and fame to make sure what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else.
“When I was in seventh grade, I had a couple guys who would make fun of me. They called me ‘ears,’ because my ears are too big and shaped a little bit different,” he said. “There was one episode that was really bad.”
It’s a moment Wilhelm will never forget. And though it was painful for him, it would come to serve as his inspiration to fight bullying with his BMX skills.
“I fell down this giant hill and everyone was pointing and laughing at me. That hurt more than when I broke six bones riding my bike, but a guy named Glenn told me he rode BMX, too,” Wilhelm said. “…He told me that he rode BMX, too, and invited me to hang with him and his friends who were in high school.”
With a new group of supportive friends, Wilhelm returned to where his bullies were, but they weren’t interested in poking fun at him anymore.
“Just the fact that Glenn showed his presence and I was a part of a ‘cool’ crowd, those guys never picked on me again,” Wilhelm said. “And here I am still riding my bike 20-something years later. Glenn was a hero, and I’m here to show kids you can be a hero, too.”
Wilhelm said he was bullied because he was different, but looking back, he embraces it and has a special message to kids who are dealing with bullying.
“Being different is the thing that makes you stand out and it’s something that will make you successful,” Wilhelm said. “And being different is one of the best things you can be.”