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Power to the People

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With less than two years to go until the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, the focus for Toyota is shifting towards mobility for all society. Globally, Toyota has offered a US$4 million prize pool to uncover innovative and ground-breaking technology to assist people with lower-limb paralysis.

Paralympians in New Zealand are hoping that the global Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge will aid in the discovery of a technological breakthrough to improve the sporting achievements and quality of life of all people with disabilities.

Para swimmer Rebecca Dubber knows from practical experience that any innovations in technology can help in her everyday life as well as in competition at the highest level.

She has seen wheelchair technology improve in the two decades since she first had one as a pre-schooler.

A bronze medallist at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, she has just started rebuilding her career after surgery for shoulder over-use injuries that she sustained in years of self-propelling heavy wheelchairs in her everyday mobility.

Now they are much lighter, having halved in weight in the past three years to seven kilograms, using a combination of carbon fibre, titanium and aluminium instead of the previous alloy and steel.

She also benefits from an electronic smart drive, which clips on to the chair and provides much of the motive power.

“It’s so much easier to get about,” explains the 25-year-old Aucklander.

The other technology that makes Rebecca’s life simpler is a hand control to drive her car. A simple lever is pulled back to accelerate and pushed forward to brake, and it is linked directly to the standard foot controls.

“If innovative technology comes out of the challenge and gives me access to walk down the aisle at my wedding, that would be fantastic,” says Rebecca.

Cameron Leslie has been using prosthetic legs since he was two years old. The triple Paralympic gold medallist in swimming, from Whāngārei, is also a Wheel Black competing in the sport of wheelchair rugby.

“When I was a kid the prosthetics were pretty basic, with free swinging legs,” says the 28-year-old.

“Now the prosthetic knees have micro process or controlled gyroscopes to mimic the movement of a natural knee.

“Life is less tiring in general,” says Cameron.

While he has seen countless improvements in wheelchair weights, when he took to the court with the Wheel Blacks in Sydney last month his wheelchair, and those of his teammates, was strengthened for the rough-and-tumble nature of the sport.

The chairs, built especially for the sport, are like the proverbial brick outhouse and are at least twice the weight of an everyday wheelchair.

“If people can come up with cool ideas for Mobility Unlimited and make them into things that make a difference in people’s lives, that would be great,” says Cameron.

Para cyclist Sarah Ellington has seen the technology changes, even in the three years since she had a spinal cord injury in 2015, which reduced the power she could generate in her legs.

Given only a two per cent chance of walking again, she started walking with an “off the shelf” plastic splint to support her right ankle and extend up her calf muscle. Now she has a custom-made carbon fibre one that fits “a whole lot better”.

“Mobility is everything,” says Sarah.

“It gives you independence. It would be amazing to see people walk again. You don’t realise how much you’ve lost until you have limited mobility.”

Prior to 2015 she had done enough cycling on an ordinary bike to compete in a Half Ironman. In the past 18 months Sarah has been selected for the Paralympics New Zealand Para Cycling National Development Programme.

Sarah made her international debut last August and next month will compete at her third World Championships in Italy, having already won two silver medals at a World Cup meeting in Belgium in May.

Now Sarah has three bikes that are designed for specific tasks – a track bike for velodrome events, a lightweight, carbon-fibre road bike for road racing, and an aerodynamic time-trial bike for races against the clock. Add in the disc wheels, aero helmet and aerodynamic skin suit.

“Technology isn’t everything in cycling,” says Sarah, “but you’ve got to have the latest kit to be competitive.”

Paralympian Grant Sharman has seen it all. He has been competing in a variety of Para sports since 1978 and first played for the Wheel Blacks in 1995 leading up to the Sydney 2000 Paralympics. Between 2003 and 2008 he coached the Wheel Blacks and more recently has taken up Para shooting with the goal of making the team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

“Every sport now has its own sport-specific wheelchair. When I started we just used what we had. Wheelchair rugby now has different chair types for the different positions.”

Lightweight and aerodynamic, Para athletics track chairs can cost more than $10,000, and a set of carbon-fibre wheels can add several thousand dollars more.

Paralympians are using the same sports science as their able-bodied counterparts. “It’s all about making marginal gains,” says Grant.

The winner of the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge will be announced during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, where Toyota is the mobility partner. Locally, Toyota New Zealand proudly supports both Paralympics New Zealand and the New Zealand Olympic Committee.