Lancashire’s 14-year-old wheelchair motocross champion Tomas Woods: “Not feeling like the disabled kid was freeing”
It was watching someone go upside down that really made Tomas Woods think ‘that’s for me’. “Going down a six-storey mega-ramp and doing a double backflip 360 also got me pretty interested,” he adds with a smile.
It’s January 2020 and Tomas Woods has just got his first wheelchair. Given a provisional diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS), a group of incurable hereditary tissue disorders which result in flexible joints, pain, and stretchy but fragile skin, Tom is on holiday getting to grips with his bog-standard NHS wheelchair. He’s trying to do a wheelie.
“My NHS chair was this foldable thing which wasn’t measured to me, my shoulders, or my back, so it messed up my posture,” says Tomas, 14. “But I still spent ages in it trying to figure out tricks after seeing these WCMX [wheelchair motocross] videos on YouTube. As soon as I saw them, I just thought ‘that’s really cool’.
“I emailed a skatepark in Manchester called Greystone to ask if it was something they did and they invited me down,” adds Tom, from Preston. “When I tried WCMX out for the first time for real, it was just so cool. It was something I never thought I’d be able to do, so to be there at the skatepark with everybody else was such a great experience.
“To not feel like the disabled kid as I went round pounding the ramps and carving the corners was so freeing. Ever since that day, I’ve not looked back.”
UK number 1
By October 2020, Tom was the UK’s number one male WCMX rider, excelling in a sport which requires participants to perform gravity-defying tricks and stunts on skatepark setups, combining elements from wheelchair BMX and skateboarding. He now trains three times a week at skateparks in Darwen and Manchester. But his journey was far from straightforward.
“For a long time, we didn’t know what was going on, which was really frustrating,” says Tom’s mother Joanna Woods. “From being tiny, Tom had lots of gastrointestinal problems - his first admittance to hospital was at three weeks old - and, as a toddler, he just couldn’t keep up with others. Everything had to be in short bursts with a lot of recovery time.
“The older he got, the longer the recovery time took until, eventually, he couldn’t even cope with school: we took him out at the age of eight because we just didn’t feel like we had any other choice,” adds Joanna. “Then he tried kickboxing and dislocated his ankle. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“We did some research and came across this thing called EDS, but no one in the NHS could help - we even saw a consultant who actually said it didn’t exist,” she continues. “We went private for an assessment to get some clarity - not knowing was hard. It got to the point where I just wanted a test to come back positive.
“No one wants their kid to be ill, but you want to know what it is so you can deal with it and, for years, we didn’t have that. Then, this year, both Tom and I got the full diagnosis: I hadn’t picked up on my symptoms because they were totally different. As a kid, I had weak ankles and gastro issues but, as a mum, you’ve not got time to be ill. Now the penny’s dropped.”
A champion emerges
Benefitting from the clarity offered by his diagnosis, an inspired Tom has literally thrown himself into competition. In 2020, he took part in his first WCMX championships, which were held online due to Covid, putting together a run and filming it at night at Greystone when no one was about. He even attached a smoke bomb to his chair for added flair.
“I’ll admit, my first thought about WCMX was ‘oh, ****!’” says Joanna. “Tom had waited 10 months for his first wheelchair, barely leaving the house for anything but doctor’s appointments for his pain, so when he was like ‘this is what I want to do’, I was a little taken aback. But, at the same time, we just wanted him to get out there and have a life again.
“That first session at Greystone was insane: all of a sudden, he was doing tricks that other people said it’d taken them a year to master,” she adds. “He was just made for WCMX, so to see the joy on his face was great - we couldn’t get him out.”
Then, earlier this year, he travelled to Switzerland, Germany, and Austria for the Limitless Skate Event. “It was unbelievable,” says Tom. “There was much more of a community spirit because we were all able to be there in person. It was also amazing to train and ride with people who are better than me. It was a big step up, but really good at the same time.
“Even though I’m a 14-year-old unsponsored non-pro rider, they said I was too good for my age category and bumped me up to the men’s pro league, so I was competing against adults whose day job is WCMX,” he adds, having also been highly commended at the 2022 Preston Sports Awards. “The amount I learned was insane and taking third was just unreal.”
“Watching him compete is amazing,” says Joanna. “People keep saying ‘are you not scared for him?’ but honestly I’m not. There have been times when I’ve sat in the cafe and chosen not to watch, but we trust he knows his limits and we’re on the sidelines encouraging him to try new stuff all the time. To see him excel and succeed is just fantastic.”
Ambitions, hopes, and dreams
Looking to the future, Tom - who’s already looking to help the next generation by coaching through the International WCMX Series charity - has two main aims. “I want to get sponsored and become a pro rider,” he says. “And then my other goal is to do well at the WCMX World Championships in America [starting December 17th].
“Sponsorship really would help with the cost of everything because it adds up,” he adds. “Gloves alone are £25 a pair and I can go through a pair in two days when training for a comp, while some of the top-end chairs can cost £12,000. As for the World Champs, I’ll be the youngest person ever to compete in the pro league, so my goal is to get on the podium.”
I mention the P-word: Paralympics. “It’s difficult,” replies Tom, who, under current Paralympic regulations, wouldn’t be allowed to compete due to EDS not being recognised as a sufficiently debilitating condition - a ruling Joanna says they may look to appeal in the future. “The International WCMX Series is working on it but it’s difficult.
“To get in, you need a minimum of 12 countries with five-person teams, and qualifying events,” he continues. “It’s a few years off and there’s a lot that’s got to happen, the UK doesn’t even have a governing body, so it’s about getting all that set up. But I’ve been working on that personally, chatting to Skateboard GB and British Cycling, so that’s exciting.
“But competing at the Paralympics would be insane, especially with the exposure and funding that’d give WCMX,” he says, his face lighting up. “That’s the dream.”