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High-Tech Wheelchairs, Prostheses Showcase of Paralympics

August 19, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ Ask Michael Johnson how he runs so fast, he might point to his golden shoes. For Deanna Sodoma, it’s all in the wheelchair.

From lighter wheels to prostheses with more spring, these high-tech tools are the Nike and Reebok of the Paralympics.

You’ll seldom see athletes at these games dragging heavy, metal legs or awkwardly maneuvering large wheelchairs around. Artificial legs and feet used here are light and nimble. Wheelchairs can twist, turn, speed and stop.

``The changes in technology over the last five to 10 years have been remarkable,″ said Tabi King, spokeswoman for RGP Prosthetics, a San Diego-based prosthetics research firm. ``Today, it’s all about carbon fiber, titanium and suspension. They certainly allow athletes to excel.″

Plastics and new-age fibers have replaced metals and fiberglass in today’s artificial legs and feet. Some weigh less than five pounds each, and can be taken off with a flick of the wrist. And athletes have their pick of designs from stiff and springy for sprinting to shock-absorbent for marathons.

``This has meant amputee athletes can train harder and longer and as a result, we are seeing the gaps close between the their times and Olympic times,″ said Tony Russell, vice president of sports and marketing for Flex-Foot Inc., an Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based prosthetic design firm.

``Not all athletes have the advantage of this technology, and in a way that is unfair,″ King said. ``Some athletes still have to wear legs that can be 10 to 15 pounds heavier than the latest innovations. You have to think, now that’s a phenomenal athlete. Put him in a high-tech prosthetic and he may do even better.″

Heavy, wooden wheelchairs have transformed into sleek, three-wheeled racing machines. Aluminum and steel frames have given way to aerospace-grade aluminum and titanium alloys. And now, there’s a chair for each sport: basketball, racing and even tennis.

``I’ve only had this chair since October,″ said Sodoma, a U.S. wheelchair racer from Carlsbad, Calif. ``That’s how amazing the technology is. These wheels are carbon fiber, this metal is titanium. These materials are amazing.″

``Racing chairs really parallel a lot of the biking industry,″ said David Mahaffy, a marketing coordinator for Quickie Designs, Inc., a Fresno, Calif.-based wheelchair manufacturer. ``You’ll see the same type of wheels and aluminum like you would see in the airline industry.″

Likewise, tennis chairs are built with sharply slanted back wheels so athletes can move side to side quickly. In basketball, forwards have higher seats, guards have more slant in their tires to turn quickly.

Still, ``state-of-the-art″ carries with it a stiff price tag. Prostheses range from $3,500 to $7,000. Top wheelchairs can cost between $2,000 and $3,300.

And innovation aside, not all Paralympians credit their high-tech help.

``This is the ultimate in aerodynamics,″ said Jacob Heilveil, a U.S. wheelchair racer, pointing to his yellow, three-wheeled contraption. ``But I like to think it’s not so much about technology. It’s the endurance and desire to win.″