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Zip-Up Nikes Deliver 'Amazing' Freedom For The Disabled

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Matthew Walzer is a 19-year-old college student from Florida, and he loved his Nike sneakers. There was just one thing Walzer didn't like about his Nikes, the laces. Walzer has cerebral palsy. And though Nike high tops give his ankles the support he needs, tying his shoes on his own is pretty much impossible. So he wrote a letter to Nike back in 2012. It went viral, and now he's got his own sneaker, the LeBron Zoom Soldier 8 FlyEase. Matthew Walzer joins me now from member station WGCU in Fort Myers, Fla. Welcome to the show, Matthew.

MATTHEW WALZER: Hi, Rachel, how are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing well, thanks. We're also joined by the designer of that shoe, Tobie Hatfield, senior director of athletic innovation for Nike. Thanks so much for being with us, Tobie.

TOBIE HATFIELD: My pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: I want to start with Matthew, though. Can you tell me more about what inspired you to write that letter in the first place and what you said?

WALZER: For the first 16 years of my life, my parents always had to put my shoes on. And once I got to high school, it became really frustrating and really embarrassing that I always had to ask my parents to put my shoes on or one of my friends to help me tie my shoes if I was out somewhere. So I wrote a letter to Nike and said, look; there's a real need for a shoe like this - 'cause I've grown up with plenty of people with special needs that also can't tie their shoes - and would you guys be willing to do something?

MARTIN: Did you hear back right away?

WALZER: Three days later, I heard back from Nike. They were in London at the Olympics. And they said we love your letter. We're going to hook you up with Tobie, and we're going to start working on a shoe for you.

MARTIN: So Tobie, how did you get involved in all of this? And how did you respond when you first heard about Matthew's struggles?

HATFIELD: Like Matthew said, I was in London at the Olympics and happened to be there with our CEO, Mark Parker. And he said, Tobie, I know you've been working on some things for people with special needs. So it was kind of natural, I think, for him to tell me about Matthew's letter. And we just went from there.

MARTIN: Matthew, did you get to be involved in the design process? Or did it end with your letter saying, I need this kind of shoe?

WALZER: No, I was involved from the design process with the get-go. I spoke to Tobie, and we went over some things that I needed in a shoe as far as support and also ease of access. The first prototype was basically a slip-on sneaker, where it would open up. And you slide your foot in, and you close the shoe. And you're done.

MARTIN: Tell me what's hard about tying a traditional shoe for you.

WALZER: I only have flexibility in my left hand. So obviously, tying shoes is a two-handed thing. So it - and it's also fine motor skills, which - that sort of thing is kind of difficult for me, you know, the looping in and out and knotting and things like that.

MARTIN: What was it like to get this shoe in the mail when the design process was finally done and the shoe was realized? I imagine Tobie sent you a pair.

WALZER: The first prototype that I got had a Velcro strap and a zipper up the middle. And getting that package in the mail was amazing. I'll never forget taking them out of the box, putting them on. For the first time ever in my life, I put my own shoes on.

MARTIN: Tobie, this is a shoe that you are hoping that other people can use, not just Matthew Walzer.

HATFIELD: We knew from the very beginning - and even Matthew said - this is obviously bigger than just about Matthew and one person. We knew from the beginning that this is something that we wanted to be accessible to the whole community.

MARTIN: So, Matthew, how many pairs of these things do you have in your closet now?

WALZER: Just one so far. But...

MARTIN: Oh, Tobie, get on that.

(LAUGHTER)

WALZER: It doesn't really matter. They're still really awesome.

MARTIN: College student Matthew Walzer and Tobie Hatfield, a senior director of athletic innovation for Nike. Thanks so much to both of you.

HATFIELD: Thank you, Rachel.

WALZER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.