Wilhelm, Obama, celebs fight bullying
When BMX rider Matt Wilhelm was younger he was bullied for having big ears, for being a twerp, and for all the worst things schoolyard bullies could throw at him. A bully at his local BMX track was so ruthless Wilhelm was scared off racing altogether, and started messing around with the flatland tricks that would eventually make him a three-time X Games medalist, help launch his career as a motivational speaker and performer bringing his flatland BMX show and inspirational message to young people around his hometown of Chicago and across the country, and bring him before TV's "America's Got Talent" judges in 2011.
Wilhelm is joining President Barack Obama -- another kid with big ears who has spent some time in Chicago -- to bring that message to an even broader audience with "Stop Bullying: Speak Up," a half-hour special that airs on the Cartoon Network at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday.
We caught up with Wilhelm to get the scoop on how he came to be sharing screen time with Obama and a "Speak Up" cast that also includes tennis champion Venus Williams, soccer star Hope Solo, WNBA star Lisa Leslie and NASCAR drivers Trevor Bayne, Jeff Burton and Joey Lagano, as well as CJ Manigo, Ali Sepasyar and Jackson Rogow, co-hosts of Cartoon Network's "Dude What Would Happen?"
ESPN.com: How did you came to be involved in the "Speak Up" project and what can you tell us about your role in it?
Wilhelm: "Speak Up" is basically a documentary for the "Stop Bullying: Speak Up" campaign, which features kids talking about how they've been bullied, but for the show they're also getting some celebrities to talk about their experiences with bullies and how they overcame bullying in their own lives. The producers saw me on "America's Got Talent" and when I was on there the show touched briefly on how I was bullied as a kid. So the guys with Cartoon Network contacted me and talked to me a little bit more and thought I'd be a great fit for it. It's pretty cool to be a part of it.
Why was it important to you to open up about your own experiences with bullying and to help get that message out there?
The message of the show, "Speak Up," is what I talk about every day at the schools I visit. I perform at over 300 schools a year, and I talk about bullying, and how I was bullied: Being called "Ears" because I have big ears and I didn't know how to deal with the bullies. So what I talk about during my shows is how it made me feel, but also what to do if you're being bullied, and one of the things is to speak up, you know, tell somebody what you're going through. A lot of kids are really afraid to speak up and think it's wrong or think they're tattling on someone, and the bystanders won't speak up because they're afraid the bully will pick on them, too. So what I do in my shows is what this special is all about -- it's a perfect fit.
How did you make that transition from riding competitively and doing your series of flatland BMX instructional DVDs to doing these performances for young people?
I used to ride for this local team and we'd do fairs and festivals. Occasionally we'd do school shows and we'd always get a decent response, but we never really had any set content in the show, and so I started to think about things I've done and ways I can relate to kids. My first year at X Games I came in last place -- dead last -- but the next year I got a bronze medal, and I ended up with three medals. So I thought I would build a program around that idea of perseverance and not giving up when you're down. Over the years I've created an anti-bullying program, one on bike safety, and one on character. It's a pretty awesome show! The kids are psyched to get out of class to see some tricks, and if they can take away some great messages, too, then I feel great and it's a lot of fun for everybody.
Why do you think bullying has been getting so much public attention recently?
I'm not sure, but it is great that people are speaking up about it now. Back in 1999 when the Columbine High School shootings happened in Colorado people were really starting to talk about and to become aware of how high the stakes can be, but then 9/11 happened and the national focus shifted to terrorism. Now bullying awareness is gaining steam again because there have been a lot of stories in the news about bullying-related suicides. I don't think that it's necessarily that kids are being bullied more nowadays, but just that people are speaking up more and becoming more aware of it. And the fact that some of the extreme end of what we used to call "bullying" we now realize are actually hate crimes with serious consequences. And then all this social media opens up a whole new can of worms: Kids today also have to deal with cyber-bullying and online harassment. So there are more dimensions to bullying now than there were before, and people are really becoming aware of it.
What can you tell us about the overall "Speak Up" show and your role in it?
I haven't seen the finished product yet, so hopefully it'll be a cool surprise on Sunday. They came to Chicago to film with me and we did the interview on the roof of the Adler Planetarium overlooking the skyline, which looked cool. Then we filmed right on the lakefront at one of my favorite riding spots. I got some good tricks in, so hopefully we'll see some of those, too. Like I said, I haven't seen the finished product yet, but the producer told me I'm in there quite a bit. Their whole thing is not only talking about bullying and trying to relay the message, but also to keep kids engaged, and to see some role models who have overcome some of what they may be going through, so the bike tricks will come in handy. When I filmed my part I didn't even know the president was going to be in there. I just found that out the other day when the first trailers for the show came out. I was like, "Oh, this is pretty legit now!" So I don't know if he'll be watching, but he's from Chicago, too, and my stuff is all filmed there, so maybe it'll catch his attention. I'd love to collaborate with him again in the future or stop by the White House to show him some BMX tricks!
What do you make of the evolution of street-style BMX and seeing some of those flatland roots incorporated into what BMX has become circa 2012?
It's a two-sided sword because I'm really happy to see the street riders incorporating the flatland tricks and everything's getting so tech now, which is great, but the other thing is that flatland is so isolated now that we're rarely even at the same competitions. When I was growing up we'd ride flatland at the skatepark, and nobody does that anymore. It feels like we're less of a community than we were before. But it's all BMX, and I'd like to see it get back to where it was, where flatland was just another facet of what people loved about BMX, where you'd go ride street or dirt or vert one day and learn some flatland tricks another day. But whatever: It is cool that people are getting more tech and bringing some flatland stuff back. I'm way into it.
Anything else you want to add?
My website is ProBikeShows.com if you want to get my "Ground Rules" instructional DVD or have me come visit your school or whatever. I'd also like to plug my sponsors: Hoffman Bikes, Dan's Comp, and Pinhead Hair Stylin' Gel. To all the bullies out there who ever called me a pinhead, or worse, take that: I have a hair gel sponsor now!