ANTI-BULLYING SEMINAR BMX star shows tricks, implores students to be heroes

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Part of his anti-bullying presentation incorporating his personal story, professional BMX rider and X Games medalist Matt Wilhelm (center) demonstrates a bike riding technique for eighth-grader Anthony Garza (right), as sixth-grader Saidah Ramos watches, at St. John Bosco in Hammond on Feb. 25. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


by Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic


        HAMMOND ­– To become a BMX (bicycle motocross) national champion, X Games medalist and TV star, Matt Wilhelm had to find a way around bullies. Through determination and making an alliance with a new friend, the suburban Chicago youth picked himself up.

        Appearing for an anti-bullying presentation at St. John Bosco in Hammond on Feb. 25, Wilhelm, now 40, quickly broke the ice with students by passing out autographed merchandise and telling them that six broken bones and many dashed dreams eventually led him to a place at the top of extreme sports.

        Wilhelm grew up in in south suburban Oak Lawn, Ill. A lanky kid, he eventually earned the nickname “ears,” when he was teased for having prominent lobes. A fan of bikes since he was a toddler, he later began to improvise and perform freestyle moves, doing upside-down wheelies, jumping with his bike, and teaching himself to make tight turns and spin rapidly.

        The latter portion of his routine was refined in garages and basements during the inhospitable Midwest winters.

        “I used to do a bike safety presentation at schools, then one school asked me to talk about bullying, and I said, ‘Yes, I definitely can talk about bullying,” Wilhelm said.

        Though he built a reputation as a talented BMX competitor, some neighborhood kids did not respect his right to practice his sport. One incident resulted in Wilhelm being shoved down a hill with his bike.

        To protect his mother’s feelings and his self-esteem he raced home and quickly walked past his mom, cheerfully greeting her as if everything was all right. But the fake face soon fell, and he began to sob.

        Wilhelm said soon an unlikely friendship with an older boy who took him under his wings and offered him the protection of a greater group of friends resulted in peace in his world.

        “A week later, after I thought my riding career was over, I went up to those same dirt jumps and only this time I wasn’t alone,” Wilhelm explained. “When those tough guys showed up again, they didn’t say a word.”

        He added: “Think that if (my new friend) Glenn hadn’t ever said, ‘you can ride with me,’ I wouldn’t have been in the X Games or America’s Got Talent. You can be a hero by doing something small, something simple.”

        For eight years, Wilhelm built a bag of flatland BMX tricks, most revolving around his “spinny style” and speed. By 2000, he “came out of hiding and retirement” and started a three-year run with the X Games, where he won a bronze medal, as he ran his signature Blender Bike Flip to near-perfection.

        Perhaps Wilhelm is best known for his television appearances on America’s Got Talent, where judge Piers Morgan said about him, “You've come from nowhere, and I think you are going to have America on your side.”

        Videos of his bike trickery in a glow-in-the-dark motif went viral online.

        Anthony Garza, who was selected from the junior high school crowd to learn a BMX trick with Wilhelm’s guidance, expanded on the star’s sentiments about everyone’s uniqueness. The eighth grader said that people’s respect for one another is born of deeply-held values.

        “You feel that you have to do nice things for others, just like Jesus, who died for us,” Garza said.

        Garza explained that another kid bullied him when he was in third grade, but the quick actions of friends and teachers saved the day: “My friends saw the bullying and went to a teacher straight away.”

        In true jokester fashion, Wilhelm had demonstrated a complicated spinning move achieved while he stood on his bike’s pegs, and told his volunteer students they should repeat his moves. At first, Saidah Ramos, a sixth grader, was a bit nervous about the prospect of riding on a BMX bike.

        “It was very interesting – I thought I was going to die during the trick,” she joked. “Afterwards, I felt brave.”

        Her take-away from the presentation is that a person “should always be themselves,” and not pay any attention to the unfair criticism of others. 

        SJB principal Nancy Repay said the presentation was a worthwhile endeavor for her students: “The importance of the (Wilhelm) presentation is to teach them how to treat each other in the classroom so they can be responsible adults. . .and value each other.”


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Part of his anti-bullying presentation, professional BMX rider Matt Wilhelm demonstrates a trick on his bike at St. John Bosco in Hammond on Feb. 25. Wilhelm, an X Games medalist and an America's Got Talent contestant, achieved fame in his sport, not before enduring bullying as a youth, about which he encourages today's students to be heroes and help others. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Part of his anti-bullying presentation, professional BMX rider Matt Wilhelm makes a point at St. John Bosco in Hammond on Feb. 25. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

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