All I was asking for was a pair of shoes. What I received in return was more than I could possibly imagine. My name is Matthew Walzer (Florida Gulf Coast, Lambda Xi ’16), and this is my story.
I was diagnosed with spastic diplegia, a form of Cerebral Palsy, after I was born two months early. I walk with forearm crutches, and my disability has left me with the use of only my left hand, making it impossible for me to tie my shoes. As I got older, with dreams of wanting to go away to college, I knew shoelaces were the only thing stopping me from living on my own. Growing tired and embarrassed of relying on my parents and peers to come tie my shoes every day, and with limited options in Velcro shoes available as far as support, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
In August 2012, at the age of 16, I wrote a letter to Nike CEO Mark Parker asking for an accessible shoe that could be worn by everyone, from people with disabilities to athletes. My request was for an athletic shoe for the disabled community offering independence as well as style. I knew my goal was a long shot, but was determined to make it happen.
Within days of sending my letter, I was contacted by a Nike representative, who told me that my letter resonated with them. Nike wanted my input, and I was paired with designer Tobie Hatfield, whose resume includes working with Tiger Woods and creating the The Nike Free. Hatfield’s initial goal was to design modified shoes without laces, with plans for a more accessible design once the initial goal was met. In October 2012, just days after my 17th birthday, I put on my own shoes for the first time in my life - Nike basketball shoes with a zipper and Velcro strap, complete with “Walzer” stitched in gold on the pull tab.
At the time, I didn’t think Hatfield’s work could get any better. I was quickly proven wrong. In early 2013, Hatfield and his team soon began work on a shoe design that was unlike anything the shoe industry had ever seen---a shoe that zips open from the back, allowing one’s foot to simply slide in through the heel, and close it just as easily with no laces required. This design solved the other issue that I, and many others with physical challenges, face---the ability to get in and out of a shoe due to a lack of range of motion. Coming up with an idea and executing it the way it was intended are two very different things. What followed was nearly two and a half years of wear testing prototypes, and providing feedback to Hatfield as the design was perfected.
In June 2015, my family and I were flown to Los Angeles, where I met Hatfied in person for the first time, and received the first iteration of what is now known as Flyease. Nike informed me that the very shoe I received, a LeBron James basketball shoe with a rear entry system, would be coming to market in July of that year.
Since the initial launch, the outpouring of appreciation that Nike and I have received has been overwhelming. However, it is not just the thanks that we received, but the consumer’s request for more. More sizes, more colors, more styles; and Nike has listened. The Flyease entry system is now available on multiple basketball and running shoes in a variety of sizes and colors, from toddlers to adult sizes. A shoe has been designed that is truly meant for any athlete.
The recognition that Flyease has received has been immense. From Time Magazine, to ESPN, to Sports Illustrated. I mean, for someone who never could play a competitive sport in his life, being in print in Sports Illustrated is pretty damn cool. Then, in September 2016, The White House called.
Hatfied and I were invited to the White House to represent Nike during their ‘Design for All’ event, which recognizes efforts in accessible fashion and advances in prosthetics and mobility devices. We had the chance to participate in a panel discussion and share our story with members of the media, disability rights advocates, and other pioneers in the world of accessible fashion. If you told me one letter would manifest itself into an entire shoe line, I would have laughed in your face. If you told me it would have brought me to the White House, I would have thought you were crazy.
The best news is that this is only the beginning. Nike and I are committed to providing even better solutions for people of all abilities. There is no finish line.
To read Walzer’s initial letter to Nike, visit www.pikes.org/NikeLetter.