Paralympics

Own the Podium innovates around the Paralympics

On the Olympic front, research and development has helped athletes in summer and winter sports climb to the top of the podium. But Lindsay Musalem, a biomechanics expert at the CSIO, says there is a great opportunity when it comes to the Paralympics and improvements that can be made to the equipment and technology.

But is it creating two classes of athletes and leaving developing nations behind?

A Paralympic athlete goes through testing at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario. (Submitted by Jason Burnett/Canadian Sport Institute Ontario)

After the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, researchers at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO), working with Own the Podium, decided to turn more of their attention to Para athletes, particularly wheelchair design to help Canadian athletes perform at their best.

On the Olympic front, research and development has helped athletes in summer and winter sports climb to the top of the podium.

But Lindsay Musalem, a biomechanics expert at the CSIO, says there is a great opportunity when it comes to the Paralympics and improvements that can be made to the equipment and technology.

"On the Paralympic side, there's been less attention paid [to innovation] over the years. It's a rather new kind of space," she says. "There's also a lot more in terms of innovation to the equipment that can be done especially with wheelchairs."

So Musalem began working with a handful of younger players who were part of the development program for next generation athletes called the National Academy. 

The goal was to find a more scientific way to ensure athletes were in a chair that fit them well and helped them perform at their best.

"There is a lot of customization that goes into every athlete – every athlete is different in terms of their ability level and strength level," she says.  

The researchers worked with the Southern Institute of Alberta Technology who created an adjustable chair with 36 different parameters, including things like seat height and centre of gravity that could be shifted around to find the best configuration.

They sat the athletes on that chair and strapped them onto a machine.

They recorded how quickly the athletes could accelerate, the force on the wheels, and took 3D images of how the athletes were moving in the different chair configurations collecting all the data on a computer.

The athletes then utilized that information to set up their own chair in a similar way. This could save them thousands of dollars.

Wheelchairs cost up to $9,000

In wheelchair basketball, top athletes often go through several different customized chairs in their careers, each costing between $4,000 to $9,000 while finding the one that fits best.

Canadian wheelchair basketball player Élodie Tessier, right, pictured with researcher Lindsay Musalem. (elo_tessiier/Instagram)

Musalem's research sped up that process. Elodie Tessier was one of the athletes who participated in the study.

Tessier was in a chair that didn't fit her well and now feels like a completely different athlete.

"I'm 3-foot, nine inches and my legs aren't even, one is longer than the other," she says.

"The researchers were wondering how much lower I should sit to be more stable on the chair.  The wheel we could bring it out a little bit more.  We tried everything on the adjustable chair."

The results were noticeable. Tessier now competes in a chair that is lower to the ground and is more stable. They adjusted the foot plate so she could get power off her one leg.

"I'm faster now. My pushes are really good," she says. 

Tessier laughs at the thought of sticking with her previous chair.

"Oh my gosh, if I would have stuck with my old chair, I don't think I would have made the national team."

Tessier says she's happy to see Own the Podium investing in research for Para athletes.

"For me it changed completely the way I play and perform. So, I think it's really important to know we get that resource."

Musalem has expanded her study to other Para sports including wheelchair track and field and wheelchair rugby.

She says the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are two of the only other countries like Canada doing this kind of research in wheelchair sport.

"I think it can really give teams that have this novel information a leading edge in competition. "

Developing nations find it hard to compete

But in developing countries without the same resources as Canada, the fear is this creates further gaps and two classes of athletes – those that have the resources and those that don't.

Bienvenido Arturo Zorrilla is the secretary general of the National Paralympic Committee of the Dominican Republic.  

He says two of their top wheelchair track and field athletes are missing the upcoming Parapan American Games in Lima because they can't afford the racing wheelchairs to compete.

"We always try to do what we can. But in reality, we have great difficulty trying to prepare our athletes because of a lack of money. That's why we have a big disadvantage."

He hopes countries like Canada will share some of the discoveries from this kind of cutting edge research to help Paralympic sport and athletes in nations like his grow.

About the Author

Teddy Katz worked as an international sports journalist for CBC for 20 years. He covered dozens of Olympics and Paralympics starting in Barcelona in 1992. After leaving CBC, Teddy was the chief spokesperson and director of media relations for the Toronto 2015 Pan and Parapan American Games. More recently, Teddy helped run the press office for the International Paralympic Committee at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and will be in that same role at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

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