Team building a better wheelchair for Paralympic athletes

Team building a better wheelchair for Paralympic athletes

URBANA – Inside a nondescript building in the middle of a parking lot, scientists are using a giant wind tunnel to figure out how to make disabled athletes move faster – starting with several of the University of Illinois athletes competing at the Beijing Paralympic Games starting today.

When those athletes start competing, Greg Busch will be watching.

The UI graduate student is part of the Racing Wheelchair Aerodynamics Design Team, which has been working with several local Paralympic athletes and coaches to reduce the drag of air that keeps the athletes from reaching their potential high speeds. "Air resistance is the biggest force," Busch said. "If you can reduce that, they can speed it up."

Adam Bleakney, the UI racing coach and a Paralympic racing athlete, first approached scientists in aerospace engineering with the idea of improving racing chairs.

In response, the team built two scale models of racing wheelchairs and tested how the model racers performed using the wind tunnel. One test had the model's "head" tucked down versus sitting upright, and the scientists found that drag reduced about 10 percent.

Putting a windshield type device at the front of the chair also reduced drag, as did adding a nose cone – which looks like the front tip of an airplane.

"We ran the model by (athletes) to see if it was really what they were using," Busch said.

Bleakney wrote in an e-mail from Beijing that he and athlete Anjali Forber-Pratt provided "sport-specific expertise. Things like suggesting various aerodynamic configurations to test and more generally, basic technical information on the equipment and rules governing the equipment."

UI men's wheelchair basketball coach Mike Frogley, also the Canadian Paralympic coach, said it has been a win-win situation.

"We get to take part in cutting edge research," Frogley said.

"We have given some researchers ideas and they have come to us with ideas, wanting to try them out. It is a great situation because, no matter what, our student-athletes get access to the latest knowledge to help them maximize their potential."

While the group didn't finish building their better racing chair by Beijing, they're looking forward to gettting started with reseach once the athletes return, Busch said. In the meantime, he'll be checking out the scene from the East.