Chair Lift

Disabled athletes are gearing up.

On September 14, Glen House raced to the top of Pikes Peak. Starting at 5 a.m. with a headlamp to light the way, the Colorado Springs physician finally reached the summit parking lot -- 7,400 vertical feet and thirteen and a half miles later -- just after 10 a.m. Hundreds of people complete the Pikes Peak Challenge, an annual fundraiser for head-injury research. But House and his racing partner, Muffy Davis, were the first to do it in wheelchairs.

In recent years, top disabled athletes have been breaking down physical barriers at an astonishing and inspirational pace. Two years ago, Golden's Erik Weihenmayer, who is blind, climbed Mt. Everest. Marlon Shirley, an amputee sprinter who runs the 100-meter dash with a prosthesis, is within a half-second of competing against the world's best able-bodied sprinters.

But House's ascent was not just another a victory for an elite Paralympian. It was more a triumph of the weekend athlete, disabled division, made possible by a new, technologically advanced wheelchair. Manufactured by Independence Technologies, a start-up division of Johnson & Johnson, the I-Glide is what is known as a "manual-assist" chair. Using an on-board computer, it senses changes in slope and terrain. When such changes make pushing the chair too difficult, an electric motor kicks in to help, and the resistance on the wheel stays constant.

Paul Speight says athletic equipment for the disabled 
has only recently made significant strides.
Brett Amole
Paul Speight says athletic equipment for the disabled has only recently made significant strides.

Thanks to the innovation, the ten miles of steep and unpaved road leading to the summit of Pikes Peak was suddenly accessible to moderately athletic individuals in wheelchairs. "I feel like I could go another ten thousand feet!" Davis, a paraplegic, said at the summit.

"The chair was great!" added House, who, with no use of his legs, limited use of his hands and full strength in his shoulders, arms and wrists, is considered a "tetraplegic." He'd trained for the trip by making daily seven-mile loops around his hilly neighborhood. With a regular wheelchair, House says, he'd been able to push only a half-mile at a time. The I-Glide, he notes, was like being handed a 21-speed bike after using a one-speed cruiser his entire life.

A fitness boom in the United States has produced a parallel boom in fitness gear for the occasional jock. After all, you can't very well run, bike, snowshoe, ski, climb, kayak, or river raft without a special pair of shoes and outfit for each sport -- a premise that Gart Sports, Nike and others have made millions exploiting. The National Sporting Goods Association calculates that Americans as a whole spent about $22 billion on sports equipment last year.

Left out of the jock-wear bull market, however, has been equipment for the disabled weekend athlete. Elite wheelchair racers have specialized chairs that are built for exceptional speed -- but can take fifteen minutes to get into. Runners like Shirley strap on prosthetic legs that are marvels of modern technology -- but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and are worthless for anything but sprinting.

So what about the quadriplegic who simply wants to go for the equivalent of a hike? Jay Van Vechten, a spokesman for Independence Technologies, concedes that what may be more stunning than the invention of the company's I-Glide wheelchair is that it took until 2003 to accomplish it. "The basic wheelchair hasn't changed in 150 years," he says. "It's amazing it took so long for this new technology to be used."

It's been a long wait for many wannabe athletes. "Colorado is brutal," admits House, who lost the use of his lower body after breaking his neck in an extreme-skiing accident fourteen years ago, when he was twenty. The injury didn't prevent him from becoming a physician -- but it did prevent him from visiting the zoo. "The first time I visited here, I came to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo," House recalls. "We couldn't see it, though, because my wife and daughter couldn't push me around the hills by themselves. We had to get more people to help."

House also discovered that he couldn't enjoy the scenic Colorado backcountry and get a decent workout at the same time. He was unable to push his regular wheelchair over the rough terrain. "I used to take an off-road power chair," he says. "It's so nice to get back there. But there's no cardiovascular benefit."

Paul Speight says that when he became confined to a wheelchair 25 years ago after a car accident, he had even fewer options -- basically wheelchair basketball or swimming. "I rolled out of the hospital door and said, 'I want to play tennis.' And people said, 'What? How can you play tennis?'"

Speight says it's been only in the past five or ten years that athletic equipment for the disabled has made significant strides. Today the New Zealand native owns Spokes 'n Motion, a manufacturer and distributor of sports equipment for disabled athletes. Operating out of a tiny office and warehouse in an industrial neighborhood in south Denver, Speight says that new gear permits the disabled to participate in everything from water skiing to wakeboarding to tennis -- or simply roll along a beach. (Old-style wheelchairs sunk into the sand. This year a French company designed a model boasting a front balloon tire and dual back tires to keep the chair skimming along the top.)

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