New footwear designed by Nike innovator and former Abilene Christian University pole vaulter Tobie Hatfield (’87) is a game-changer for people with disabilities. The newest Lebron Zoom Soldier 8 uses Flyease technology, a wraparound design allowing for rear entry with no laces to tie while still providing needed ankle support. The new sneakers will be released to consumers in limited quantities beginning July 16 through Nike.com.
Hatfield is director of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, a think tank producing some of the sports world’s greatest products and technologies. In 2012, he received a copy of a letter written by 16-year-old Matthew Walzer of Parkland, Fla., who has cerebral palsy and told about the challenges he faced in his quest for independence.
“My dream is to go to the college of my choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day,” he wrote in a letter addressed to Nike CEO Mark Parker and posted online. “As a teenager who is striving to become totally self-sufficient, I find this extremely frustrating and, at times, embarrassing.”
The letter quickly went viral and eventually made its way to Hatfield, who was inspired to engineer a mass-market shoe for Walzer and others who have trouble tying shoelaces.
Hatfield is perhaps best known for creating Michael Johnson’s famous gold spikes that propelled the sprinter to double gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He also pioneered Nike Free, a technology designed to let feet move more naturally and freely than with traditional athletic shoes.
He’s designed shoes for other Olympians and top athletes as well, including tennis great Maria Sharapova, former NFL All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, fencing star Mariel Zuganis, golfer Tiger Woods, pole vaulter Stacey Dragila, beach volleyball standout Misty May-Treanor, and Olympic gold medalists Tim Mack and Tristan Gale.
The Flyease technology is not Hatfield’s first foray into footwear designed to help athletes with disabilities. In 2006, he began work with his friend Sarah Reinertsen, a professional paratriathlete, whose leg was amputated when she was 7 years old. The result of that collaboration was the Nike Sole and Spike Pad for athletes who wear prosthetic blades.
“Sarah said there would be so many more amputees who would actually get out there and exercise if they had a system like that,” Hatfield said in a 2013 interview for ACU’s WC Magazine.
Hatfield says his own experience as an athlete and coach helps him relate to the challenges of athletes he works with now.
While a student-athlete at Abilene Christian, Hatfield was part of four NCAA Division II track and field championship teams, three as a pole vaulter and one as an assistant coach.
After graduating from ACU in 1987, he followed the footsteps of his father, who was a college coach for more than 40 years. Hatfield took a full-time coaching job for Wichita State University, but when Nike offered him a position in 1990, he set off on a new career path.
Hatfield thrives on the innovative atmosphere in the Nike Kitchen, which got its name early in the company’s history after co-founder Bill Bowerman used a waffle iron filled with liquid rubber to create the first waffle sole.
“We’re constantly working on new things. It’s the nature of what we do,” he said. “We’re very passionate about how we go about it because we care. It’s exciting because we know eventually we are going to be able to help people in many respects. And it’s not just about making people go fast or high. It’s about quality of life as well. To me that’s an even bigger thing.”