Imagine buying the newest pair of signature shoes from your favorite athlete. Now imagine not being able to put them on by yourself. That imaginary situation was reality for one 19-year-old man. Matthew Walzer, who has cerebal palsy, has limited mobility that makes it nearly impossible to put shoes on without assistance. Fed up with not being able to buy fashionable, functional shoes, he set out to change that reality not only for himself, but others that dealt with the same issue.
Three years ago, Walzer stayed up until 2 a.m. working on the first draft of a letter to Nike that expressed his footwear frustrations. Nike received the letter within three days. Three years and countless prototypes later, Walzer has his own sneaker that he can put on by himself and that anyone can buy: the Nike LeBron Zoom Solider VIII FlyEase.
The FlyEase is a welcomed addition to the sneaker world because of the ability to slip the shoe on and off through rear entry and its zipper, not laces, that closes it. Not only does it help those who have issues with pronating their feet, like Walzer, but also anyone who needs special assistance.
The FlyEase features a cable system instead of laces that can be tightened and encases the foot. The heel cup zips all the way open so the wearer can slip them on. Then the zipper with a large strap, which is an original feature of the Soldier VIII, is closed for a snug fit.
The rear entry and zipper design was born from careful observation by Tobie Hatfield, Nike athlete innovation director. Hatfield noticed Walzer needed the stability of a high top, but he could never get into them; i.e., once he was in, they were uncomfortable, so the rear entry and zipper was developed.
"The way life works when you're disabled isn't so cut and dry," Walzer said.
Through the power of the Internet, WNBA All-Star Elena Delle Donne became interested in Walzer and his sneakers, as her sister Liz also has cerebral palsy. Delle Donne, a strong voice for the special needs community, knows just how tricky shoes can be for her sister.
"My mom is going to be like, 'Thank the lord for Matthew,'" Delle Donne said. "Getting [Liz's] shoes on is a struggle. When we put her foot in it gets really stiff."
What's most interesting is that not only did Nike make -- in the words of Walzer --"an insanely cool and comfortable" sneaker, but one that high-performance athletes like Delle Donne can wear. Delle Donne wore her FlyEase shoes in this year's WNBA All-Star Game. Later this month, select athletes in the Pan Am Games will also sport the FlyEase model in their events.
"Here's this superstar athlete that you would never think would be affected by a disability, but it turns out she's so directly affected, and that's when it really hit me that what I did impacts so many people," Walzer said.
Now that Walzer has his shoes, and Nike has the technology, the possibilities are endless.
"I would love to contribute to future FlyEase designs," Walzer said. "It's not just the shoe; it's a whole cause and new doorway that's opening for people."