Swifter, higher, stronger. Engineers have taken that Olympic motto to heart, empowering disabled athletes with a host of high-tech assists. For Van Phillips, it started after a 1976 water-skiing accident left him an amputee. Dissatisfaction with that era’s wood-and-foam-rubber artificial legs spurred him toward biomedical engineering at Northwestern University and the University of Utah’s Center for Biomedical Design. After close study of nature’s swiftest runner, the cheetah, he invented the shock-absorbing, carbon-fiber Flex-Foot®, a variant of which adds spring to the stride of the runner shown here. MIT researchers in the emerging field of biomechatronics – a science combining biomechanics with biological movement controls – are developing prostheses that mimic tendons and ligaments. Aided by such technology, Paralympic athletes in these pages can be recognized as much for their prowess as for the disabilities they’ve conquered. “NoLIMBitations,” is the blog title chosen by Sam Kavanagh, a competitive cyclist, civil engineer, and amputee. A Phillips adage is equally apt: “Anything you can think of, you can create.”Rocketing to Renewal
Learning to water ski helped Josh Stein, who lost both legs in Iraq, adjust to life as an amputee. Engineering put him on the waves. Sit-skis have come a long way since the first ungainly wooden models appeared in Belgium half a century ago. Californian quadriplegic water-skier Royce Andes created the popular Kan Ski in the 1980s, incorporating elements of the stand-up slalom ski with a “cage” for a seated skier. A decade later, mechanical and structural engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center volunteered to improve on the design for amputees and paraplegics at an Alabama summer camp. The resulting modified framework included an adjustable seat on a four-track mount with special shock absorber to eliminate side sway. The camp’s aquatics director credited the seat with increasing his jumping distance, helping him win a world water-skiing championship.
When Japan’s Wakado Tsuchida won her fifth straight Boston Marathon in April 2011, setting a course record for women’s push-rim wheelchair racing, three decades of progress in design and in strong, lightweight materials helped give her an edge. Winning times have fallen sharply since Bob Hall, the marathon’s first official wheelchair competitor, entered in 1975 with a 50-pound fold-up chair. Hall went on to craft aerodynamic racing chairs with angled wheels — for maximum user power and stability — and titanium frames weighing less than 13 pounds. Everything from precision hubs to the size of propulsion wheels and the contact surface on push-rings and gloves can affect performance. Rory Cooper, a Paralympic bronze medalist and University of Pittsburgh electrical engineer, knows this well. Paraplegic from a 1980 vehicle-cycle crash, Cooper heads Pitt’s Rehabilitation Science and Technology department while also helping Paralympic hopefuls and coaches. Both efforts mean better wheelchairs for veterans and others in America’s disabled population.
Breaking her back snowboarding at 17 didn’t slow lifelong athlete Alana Nichols for long. She clinched one silver and two gold medals at the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games in Canada using a state-of-the-art sit-ski. The equipment, available with one or two skis attached, cushions the rider with a suspension system similar to a motorcycle’s. The Scarver racing model Nichols uses was designed by French technician Pierre Tessier and includes center-of-gravity and sitting-angle adjustment plus a choice of three shock absorbers. Sit-ski improvements also are emerging from engineering schools. A California Polytechnic State University engineering team recently completed a project for members of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team to reduce the weight of their equipment, increase rider comfort, and enhance durability. The University of Wisconsin, Madison has developed fully adjustable cross-country sit-skis; riders use only ski poles to take on the slower, endurance-based sport. Nichols, who has a master’s degree in kinesiology, the science of human body movement, hopes to introduce others with spinal cord injuries to the world of adaptive sports.