From Bill Bowerman’s waffle sole invention in 1970 to the development of Flyknit technology in 2012, Nike has been on the forefront of innovating the athletic shoe industry for over four decades. But one area of sneaker innovation that’s been overlooked up until now has been footwear options for disabled athletes.
Nike shoe designer Tobie Hatfield began working on the easy entry shoe when CEO Mark Parker received a call about Nike’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, suffering a stroke that left one side of his body non-functional. They wanted to design a shoe that would be easy for a disabled person to put on without assistance. From there, Nike brought its innovation to a wider audience when a letter from teenager Matthew Walzer went viral on social media. In his letter, Walzer, who was born prematurely and has Cerebral Palsy, asked for Nike’s help in being able to put on his sneakers without assistance from his parents when he headed off to college in a year. His design input on what would make a shoe more accessible to a disabled person was instrumental to Hatfield in creating what would become the Zoom Soldier 8 FlyEase. One of Nike’s mantras is a quote from Bill Bowerman:
“If you have a body, you’re an athlete.”
In the case of disabled athletes, having a shoe with zippers instead of laces can be incredibly helpful. But this doesn’t mean that Walzer wanted to wear ugly velcro strip orthopedic shoes. Instead, Hatfield designed a cutting edge technology and attractive basketball shoe design based around a back entry zipper that he envisioned based on doors swinging on hinges.
When Walzer first received his shoes in 2012, he felt a wave of independence because of the simple act of being able to put on his own shoes–for the first time in his life. Ever since, Walzer has given valuable design input that led to the recent release of Nike’s first shoe widely available to disabled athletes. The Zoom Soldier 8 FlyEase also incorporates elements from the LeBron James basketball shoes. A limited edition LeBron Soldier Eight FlyEase are now available, marking a great step forward for one of the world’s most popular sports companies creating a product for less traditional—but ultimately even more inspiring—athletes like Matthew Walzer.