Bionic Women

High-tech Equipment Spurs a Revolution for Disabled Athletes

When Paddy Rossbach loped across the finish line at the 1998 New York City Marathon, she not only reclaimed the record she had lost the year before, she smashed it by over 30 minutes. Did she sprout wings? No, but she did get a new leg. From 1984 to '97, Rossbach, 62, from Salisbury, Connecticut, had held the New York City (and London) marathon records for below-the-knee female amputees. In '98, when she created the new record for her division—4 hours and 31 minutes—she was racing for the first time with a space-age prosthesis called the Flex-foot.

In the year 2000, with the Paralympics convening in Sydney, Australia, just after the Olympic Games, all the top standing-amputee runners will be competing with the Flex-foot or a similar device. And most of the 1000 wheelchairs expected to be used in the event will be game-specific engineering marvels, as different from each other as basketball is from track, and fine-tuned with up-to-the-minute modifications.

Specialized new technology for athletes with disabilities has revolutionized their major sports, whether they compete standing or, as most do, on wheels. For runners like Rossbach, the Flex-foot made a near-miraculous difference. Composed of carbon fiber, it is shaped like the letter C, with the top end attached to the athlete's stump, the bottom making contact with the ground. "The top and bottom come together and spring apart," Rossbach explains, noting with a laugh, "It feels a bit like being on a pogo stick." Using it in '98, she not only reclaimed her division record but sprang past 80 of the 95 able-bodied women in her age group. Still, she says, "I don't think it's quite as good as your own leg."

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.’’

If the Flex-foot can never match having your own, it is worlds apart from the heavy rubber-footed prosthesis Rossbach and other amputee runners used to wear. Sarah Reinertsen, a finalist for the U.S. Paralympic track team in the 100-meter event, used to wear a rudimentary prosthesis with a double-hinged rubber foot after losing her left leg above the knee at age seven. But when she was 12, Reinertsen, now 24 and a USC grad student from Huntington Bay, Long Island, got her first Flex-foot and a hydraulic knee. "It changed my life," she says.

Not only does she get a boost from the light, long-distance C, which has a sneaker sole glued right to it, but she can adjust her hydraulic knee—a joint with an oil cannister—depending on the type of action she wants. "I control the speed of it," she says. For a 100-meter race, she increases the pressure in the hydraulic so that it whips around faster; for the marathon, she adopts a middle setting.

Reinertsen will not be running the marathon at the Paralympics because there are not enough standing amps, as they refer to themselves, for the event. Sitting athletes, those who compete on wheels, vastly outnumber them, and new engineering has dramatically changed wheelchair events as well.

"As the technology and training become more sophisticated, there is the same trend toward specialization as you see in able-bodied sports," says Dr. Brad Hedrick, director of the division of rehabilitation-education services at the University of Illinois.

Where individual athletes on wheels used to compete in a wide variety of sports, they now tend to play only one or, at most, two, depending on the season. This becomes necessary as they must buy and train in a different chair, costing from $1400 to $3000, for each sport. In addition, in international competition they are allowed to compete in only one sport.

"It's brought the level of play up in every sport," says Barry Ewing, the owner of Eagle Sportschairs in Snellville, Georgia, and one of the first designers of sports wheelchairs. He points out that in track, for example, carbon fiber rear wheels have replaced spoke wheels on the aerodynamically designed three-wheelers; that and their rigid, more efficient frame now makes it possible for them to zoom by at higher and higher speeds. The tennis chair is completely different. "It's so small, it fits the person," Ewing enthuses, "and is almost weightless. It's designed for maneuverability, where the track machine is geared for speed."

Jessica Galli, 16, a sophomore at Hillsborough High School in New Jersey and a finalist for the U.S. Paralympic track team, used to compete in a "clunky" four-wheeler. Galli, a paraplegic after a car accident at age seven, now does track in a three-wheeled racing vehicle with carbon fiber tri-spoked wheels. "They're supposed to help with the wind," she says. "But I think they just look cool."

Though she is five feet tall, Galli's height doesn't matter in a chair. More important is developing her shoulder muscles because she uses her arms the most. She trains by racing with her high school's coed track team. "In sprints, they beat me," she says. "But in the distance, I can get them. I've even won some events."

The very latest techno-innovation is in basketball, where a caster-like fifth wheel was introduced about a year ago as an addition to the original basketball chair, which has a pair of large side wheels and two small wheels up front. "In a normal wheelchair, your feet are in front," Ewing, the wheelchair manufacturer, explains. "In a basketball wheelchair, the wheels are in front for stability. The fifth wheel has made leaps and bounds in the game. I've seen a lot of games where, without it, the player would be laying on the floor."

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.

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.'"


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