Nearly three years ago, then 16 year old Matthew Walzer penned an open letter to Nike CEO Mark Parker—a letter that quickly went viral on social media and is now partly responsible for improving the quality of life for many with physical disabilities.
After years of testing, Nike just announced the release of its newest sneaker, the Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease. The first sneaker of its kind, the Flyease has a zipper around its heel, allowing you to slip on the shoe and secure it with ease.
Created with those like Matthew in mind, the Flyease’s innovative design gives independence to those who cannot physically tie their shoes on their own.
A native of Parkland, Florida, Matthew was born two months early and developed cerebral palsy. His doctors said he’d never be able to walk and would have a speech disorder, but Matthew proved them wrong. He is able to walk with the help of crutches and has never had an issue with his speech.
His condition has affected his ability to be self-sufficient though, as he only has flexibility in one of his hands. Matthew learned how to dress himself almost completely, but he still needed the help of his parents to tie his shoes—until now.
Like many soon-to-be juniors in high school, Matthew was focused on his college dreams during the summer of 2012. A bright student with an interest in journalism, he dreamed of going to the college of his choosing and living on his own. Being unable to tie his own shoes would make independence difficult though, so he reached out to Nike’s CEO with a solution.
In his letter to Parker, Matthew described the difficulty he faced in finding shoes that were supportive, comfortable and easy to put on and secure. He talked about how he could only wear Nike basketball shoes because of the great ankle support they offer, but also how frustrating, and at times embarrassing, it was for him to be unable to tie them on his own. Matthew wrote:
"If Nike would design and produce basketball and running shoes with moderate support and some kind of closure system that could be used by everyone, Nike could create a shoe line that attracts people that face the same physical challenges I did and still do, yet it could still be possible for anyone to wear them."
It didn’t take long for the letter to go viral accompanied by the hashtag #NikeLetter. It quickly reached Parker, who got in touch with Nike’s Senior Director of Athlete Innovation, Tobie Hatfield, to see what they could do for Matthew.
A Shoe for Athletes of All Abilities
As it turns out, the idea to create a sneaker accessible to people of all abilities was already at the forefront of Hatfield’s mind. When Nike’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, suffered a stroke that caused him to lose function in his right side in 2008, Parker called Hatfield with a similar task.
Hatfield began experimenting with different easy entry and exit shoe designs that could help Johnson. However, Johnson immediately recognized it was a problem that went far beyond himself, and so began Nike’s mission to create a shoe for an entire community in need.
When Hatfield received the second call from Parker about Matthew, that mission was solidified.
Hatfield began collaborating with Matthew about his specific needs in a shoe. He’d send Matthew prototypes every few months to get feedback and tweak the design accordingly. Hatfield's innovative thinking combined with Matthew’s insights resulted in the Flyease, a sneaker that is truly fit for athletes of all abilities. Hatfield presented Matthew with the first pair of Flyease before the shoes hit the market.
Now a sophomore at Florida Gulf Coast University, Matthew is living his dream of being independent; a dream that can now be shared by countless others.
All photos: www.nike.com