Bionic Women

High-tech Equipment Spurs a Revolution for Disabled Athletes

Lincoln, Nebraska, native Josie Johnson, 25, a power forward on the Paralympics U.S. Women's Basketball Team, competes in a chair even though she's a standing amp. For her, the fifth wheel at the rear of her Quickie All-Court basketball chair maximizes her rebounds. "When the ball bounces off the rim," she says, "I can reach back as far as I want and not worry about tipping over. Also, when my teammates pass the ball, now they can pass it behind me and above me.

"I do the tip-off," she continues. "I'm not the tallest on the team, but I have the longest arms, and the longer your arms, the stronger your stroke to push the wheel around. The arms are the game of wheelchair basketball," she notes. "But so is the chair. It's like a part of your body. The better your chair is, and the more comfortable you are with it, the more it will add to your game."

—» In all these sports an effort is made to create a level playing field, with athletes grouped according to their level of function within their disability. So Reinertsen, the runner, is classified as A2, meaning she is an amputee above the knee. Among amputees there are six levels (A1 to A6), and Reinertsen's classification puts her in the second-lowest level of functioning. She just so happens to own four world records—in the 100, 200, 400, and marathon—in her classification. Galli, meanwhile, is ranked T3, the second-highest level of functioning among the four classifications of wheelchair-bound athletes. T1 and T2 include quadriplegics, while T4s are paraplegics with full use of their abs; Galli can only use her upper abs.

World-record runner Sarah Reinertsen says her Flex-foot ‘‘changed my life.’’
photo: Virginia Lee Hunter
World-record runner Sarah Reinertsen says her Flex-foot ‘‘changed my life.’’

Despite these efforts at parity, the technology creates an inequality, because not all athletes can afford the best or latest equipment. This is conspicuously true on the international level. "In the final heat of the Paralympics," laments Reinertsen, "everyone is wearing a Flex-foot, and they're all from countries like England, the U.S., Germany, and Australia." Reinertsen has an amputee friend from Cambodia who can't afford the expensive prosthesis, she says. "It saddens me because Cambodia has so many amputees because of land mines—35,000 of them. That's like all of USC, a whole university of amputees."

Besides this inequality, athletes regret something that all the advances in technology have not been able to correct—that their sports are not taken more seriously. Spectatorship tends to be low, even at the Paralympics. Regarding those who do show up, Hedrick notes, "It's still hard to tell whether it's curiosity or genuine appreciation for the athleticism."

Some spectators are more than just curious. They're fetishists—"devotees" who are sexually aroused by women's stumps stripped of their bionic parts. These creepy followers, who have their own organizations and Web sites, show up regularly at disabled games. They stay at the same hotels, sometimes attend the dinners. "I've gotten some weird phone calls," says Reinertsen. "They start out asking advice about a 'friend' who's an amputee. Then they ask stuff like, 'What do you do about guys?' If I get weird vibes, that's it. To me, it's not just like preferring blonds or brunettes. They like the fact that women are missing a leg. They like to see them not wearing their prosthesis. For that reason, I'd never, never agree to a press photo where I'm not wearing my leg."

"We'd like to think the spectators are becoming more inclined to accept the sport for its athletic prowess," says Dr. Hedrick, "but I don't see any compelling evidence of this." But, says, Galli, "Once people see it, they're really impressed." She adds, with a laugh, "People don't just go out and say, 'Hey, let's go watch wheelchair races today.'"

The Voice's Fourth Annual Women in Sports Series

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