GENOA – When Matt Wilhelm was 15, he wanted to be a top BMX racer. He never thought about using his bike to do tricks.
But, one day, at a dirt track, a group of bullies surrounded him, threatening to beat him up and steal his bike. As he tried to get away, he heard the voice of another biker telling the group to leave him alone. They did.
“I was lucky because that one kid had the courage to speak up,” he said. “All you need to do is say, ‘Stop.’ If you don’t, you are making it worse. You are giving them (bullies) an audience, which is what they want.”
Wilhelm shared that story with students at Genoa Elementary School last Friday. He gives about 300 similar talks throughout the country every year at schools, camps and church groups. At every show, the 35-year-old BMX world champion and “America’s Got Talent” semifinalist intermingles life lessons with bike riding demonstrations he refers to as “breakdancing on a bike.”
Wilhelm said the daring bike tricks are designed to keep children’s attention.
“If I only came out and talked about bullying for 45 minutes, they wouldn’t listen,” he said. Known as the “fastest spinner in the world,” his tricks included riding without hands, legs and even his body.
Fifth-grade teacher Emily Fowler, who suggested the school bring Wilhelm in for a talk, said he teaches children about perseverence. In one example, Wilhelm said he finished last at his first BMX competition. Rather than quitting, it motivated him to work harder until he eventually became a champion.
“I became a national champion because I didn’t give up,” he told the kids.
At the heart of his show, however, was his anti-bullying message.
“Please have the courage to speak up,” he said. “You can be a hero, their Batman.”
Even though it has been a long time since he was bullied, Wilhelm said he still remembers it.
“That stays with you,” he said.