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Ayman Wamala, a soccer fan who loves superhero movies, was selected to design a Nike Blazer. Nike
Sneaker Stories

The young designers behind Nike’s Doernbecher Freestyle Collection

Patients from Oregon children’s hospital create personalized sneakers

For nearly two decades, Nike has released a collection of limited-edition sneakers designed by patients at the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, which is located 10 miles east of the swoosh’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. This year, for the first time, the “Doernbecher Freestyle project” features footwear and apparel that was designed virtually.

The partnership began in 2004 when Nike executive Michael Doherty, who serves on the board of directors of the Doernbecher Foundation, was brainstorming ideas with his son to raise money for the hospital. Every year since, patients have been paired with Nike designers and developers to tell their stories about some of the brand’s best sneakers.

All proceeds from Nike’s retail sales of the collections are donated to the hospital. The program has raised more than $30 million, covering the cost of health care for families in need, supporting research on illnesses faced by kids, and providing specialized care to patients who come from outside the region. This year’s collection features patients who have moved from as far as Kenya.

Each year, the newest series is unveiled at a special auction-style event at Oregon Health & Science University, of which Doernbecher is a part, with the designers helping to highlight the inspiration and details that went into their shoes.

Over the years, several of Nike’s top athletes have lent their signature shoes as canvases for patients. Others have connected with patients to lend their support, as they battle ongoing illnesses.

“I love the way this collection celebrates [their] favorite things in life, from pets, foods, nature and hobbies to family members, friends, teammates and sports teams,” said Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty, a Doernbecher ambassador.

Here’s a look at the new patient-penned designs in Nike’s 18th annual Doernbecher Freestyle Collection.


Ayman Wamala, 13, Salem, Oregon​

Diagnosis: Sickle cell anemia​

Favorite sport: Soccer​

Shoe designed: Blazer Mid ’77​

After growing up in Kenya and being diagnosed with sickle cell anemia early in his childhood, Ayman Wamala and his family moved to Portland, Oregon, four years ago, allowing him to begin his treatment at Doernbecher.

The young soccer fan and lover of superhero movies was selected to design a Nike Blazer.

“Mostly, I just wanted to express myself,” he said. “The purple and black are two of my main favorite colors.”

Through the clear outsole lies a red blood cell graphic pattern to “represent what’s going on inside my body,” while the heel features a No. 7, his “favorite and lucky number.”

Along the eyestay, a stylized “AW” can be found under the laces, while the tongue features a superhero portrait of his face. The midsole reads one of his favorite mottos: “Life is uncertain. Make fast decisions in tough situations.”

“I think that phrase relates to a lot of people’s lives,” Ayman said. “Whether it’s COVID-19 or some other unexpected challenge, you have to be able to adjust to it, then rise above it.”

Maylee Phelps, 15, Portland, Oregon​

Diagnosis: Spina bifida​

Favorite sport: Wheelchair tennis​

Shoe designed: Air Zoom Vapor Cage 4​

When Maylee Phelps and her younger brother Sam David moved from Mississippi to Portland to receive treatment at Doernbecher for spina bifida, that didn’t stop their quests to play their favorite sports.

Now 15, Maylee has risen in the ranks of wheelchair tennis to her current world standing at No. 11, even while undergoing a series of surgeries to improve her mobility. She hopes to represent the United States in the Los Angeles Paralympics in 2028.

When she was selected to design her own pair of Nike’s latest statement tennis shoe, Maylee opted for a colorful and bright look, highlighted by an iridescent swoosh, her initials along the heel and a graphic of her tennis serve atop the tongue.

The inner midsole reads, “Keep Pushing.”

“That phrase helps keep me motivated on the court and in life,” said Maylee. “I thought it might help other people, too.”  

She instantly remembers her reaction when she saw the final shoe, which also includes a spine graphic down the tongue.

“I was really happy,” she said smiling. “Speechless.”

Sam David Phelps, 14, Portland, Oregon​

Diagnosis: Spina bifida​

Favorite sport: Wheelchair basketball​

Shoe designed: LeBron XIX​

While his older sister excels in tennis, Sam David has been taking his talents to the hardwood, hooping for the Portland Wheel Blazers.

When he found out he’d be designing his own edition of his favorite player LeBron James’ 19th signature shoe, he was a little intimidated. He’d seen the shoe’s orange and blue launch colorway made for Space Jam: A New Legacy.

“It looked really cool, and I didn’t know how I was going to top it,” he said, laughing. “So, I started on a blank piece of paper. I started messing around with that, and I thought of my three favorite colors — black, red and gold.”

Then he layered in details from his life — a lightning bolt symbol throughout the upper to represent his energetic spirit, his birthdate on the heel and his initials in a stylized logo also seen on matching apparel. On the tongue, a wheelchair icon features a flame bursting behind it.

Following James’ pregame routine of writing his favorite phrases along the midsole of his sneakers, Sam David’s phrase “Never Back Down!” appears in his handwriting on his pair. He hopes kids who get ahold of his LeBron XIXs can find their own inspiration in the theme.

“That they read the messages on the shoe and be inspired to strive for what they’re good at and to pursue their dreams,” he said.

Catalina Vazquez, 16, Kelso, Washington

Diagnosis: von Hippel-Lindau disease

Shoe designed: Nike SB Zoom Stefan Janoski

Diagnosed at just 3 years old with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, a rare hereditary condition resulting in tumors within multiple organs, Catalina Vazquez has had five surgeries over the years to remove them.

“I’ve gone through a lot of changes, so I’m kind of like a butterfly,” the 16-year-old said. Her shoe features a hand-drawn butterfly along the toe.

Atop the signature skate silhouette of Stefan Janoski, Catalina’s white and light teal colorway also draws inspiration from her love of exotic wildlife and the Galapagos Islands, her dream destination.

A double helix graphic runs throughout the outsole and upper of the sneaker, while the VHL Alliance’s tag line can be found printed along the midsole: “The cure is in our genes.”

Cidni O’Brien, 16, Lebanon, Oregon

Diagnosis: Anomalous aortic origin of the left coronary artery 

Shoe designed: Nike Air Force 1 Fontanka

After going into cardiac arrest during a soccer match in 2018, Cidni O’Brien was diagnosed with a rare artery disorder, requiring major surgery at Doernbecher.

Sixth months later, she was back on the pitch. Her Air Force 1 design features soccer panel graphics throughout the sneaker, along with her name along the heel and a nod to her high school team, the Lebanon Warriors. The outsole incorporates a shrimp pasta graphic, her favorite food.

Along the laces, she included the names of the extensive list of animals in her life: Tito (parrot); Bosco (donkey); Cheez-its, Thoober and Jonathan (goats); Carol Bask-hen (chicken); Copper (dog); and Swim Shady (fish).

Her mom, Nikki, is highlighted on the right insole of the shoes, while her horse Tank is featured on the left.

“I got Tank because I didn’t know if I’d ever play soccer again, and he really helped cheer me up,” Cidni said.

Michael Wilson, 11, Dayton, Oregon

Diagnosis: Krabbe disease 

Shoe designed: Air Jordan 5 Retro Low

After his older brother Marshall was diagnosed with Krabbe disease, a rare genetic condition that destroys the protective coating of nerve cells in the brain and nervous system, doctors were able to detect the same condition in Michael just after he was born.

“My brother helped save my life,” said Michael. “Five years after that, he grew his angel wings and passed away.”    

Michael’s lifesaving stem cell cord blood transplant was performed at Doernbecher on Feb. 10, 2011. “I call it my rebirth day,” he said.

Now 11, his three favorite things — airplanes, sharks and macaroni and cheese — helped to inspire the details and graphics found throughout his Air Jordan 5 Low design. The fifth Jordan model was chosen as the base for Michael to work on since Tinker Hatfield’s original 1990 design’s shark tooth graphic along the front of the shoe was inspired by the ”nose art” on fighter jet planes.

Along the heel of each shoe, the aspiring pilot added in the Jumpman tag line, “Take Flight.”

“Sometimes when I get really down, I imagine flying through the air, dunking the basketball and winning the ultimate championship like Michael Jordan did,” he said. “When people see those words, I want it to make them feel powerful like me.”

Zoe Taaffe, 17, Tualatin, Oregon​

Diagnosis: Granulomatosis with polyangiitis

Favorite sport: Lacrosse (to play), football (to watch)​

Shoe designed: Nike Dunk Low​

Zoe Taaffe, who has an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the blood vessels, remembers exactly where she was when she found out she’d be designing her own Nike shoe.

“I was sitting in the infusion center, getting an IV put into my arm, when my doctor came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I would like to nominate you for the Doernbecher Freestyle program,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘OK, sure!’

Early on, she knew she wanted to celebrate her love for the Oregon Ducks, her favorite football team.

“My family was my rock during this,” she said. “When I was younger, some of my best memories are from our big Oregon Duck game parties that we’d have with my huge extended family.”

She even remembers the first question she asked her dad after being taken off of a ventilator.

“Did the Oregon Ducks win?”

With green and yellow accents along the midfoot of the white Dunk Lows, the shoe also incorporates a zebra print along the toe and heel panels.

“The stripes are really important to me, because they’re a shout-out to anyone who’s struggling with body image out there,” she said. “After being in the hospital, especially as a teenage girl, I came out of all of the medications and all of the procedures that I had done, and it was really hard to like what I looked like … I’ve come to learn that you’re beautiful exactly how you are.”

The shoe features a series of interchangeable removable swoosh logos, with the white base version reading “One in a Million.”

“You can replace it with other swooshes, but this one has my handwriting on it,” she said. “My disease is basically one in a million. The one in a million part is cool. The disease part — less cool.”

After spending so much time at Doernbecher dealing with blood transfusions, plasma transfusions, steroids and chemotherapy, Taaffe is now pursuing a career in medicine and will attend nursing school next year. Her shoe features a nursing symbol with Duck wings along the insole.

“To help as many patients in the same way that all my nurses helped me,” she said, while outlining how her nurses would braid her hair, help paint her nails and play games together. “I like to say, ‘Doctors save lives. Nurses change lives.’ ”

Along the zebra print found throughout the shoe, subtle “ZOE” striped text is integrated into the design.

“I’ve been calling it ‘The Zoe Shoe,’ ” she said. “When you buy a pair, you join ‘Team Zoe.’ ”

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.