Advancing National Service

Reinventing the Wheelchair: How Soldiers Are Finding Salvation Through an Unlikely Sport

January 15, 2014
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Reinventing the Wheelchair: How Soldiers Are Finding Salvation Through an Unlikely Sport
For vets back home, life doesn’t end after a disability. Students at the University of Oregon are finding ways to improve their new lives as professional athletes.

Leo Curtis woke up two weeks later in a hospital in Germany. He doesn’t really remember what happened, but his injuries read like a perverted grocery list: The back of his skull needed a plate. His brain had been shuffled around, like the yolk of an egg being shaken, and he had lost parts of his memory.

Curtis needed spinal fusions. His right hand had to be reconstructed. His left knee and left ankle had to be repaired. His right ankle was practically removed, and fused back into his leg. His right shoulder had to be put back together. So did his face, which was smashed.

About two weeks before, Curtis, an Army sergeant, was near Baghdad, riding in a Humvee on MSR Tampa, the main supply road between Baghdad and Kuwait, when bombs exploded behind a guardrail. The attack occurred in 2004, at the beginning of the war in Iraq (Curtis was there for the first one, too, in 1991).

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His Humvee didn’t have the proper armor to prevent what was about to happen. The vehicle had half an inch of steel welded to the frame — enough to stop a bullet, but not an explosion. The soldiers had placed sandbags on the floor to stop stuff from coming in.

Did that save his life?

What lay ahead for him, knowing he would spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair?

When would he be able to see his wife and son again?

These were the things Curtis thought about as he lay in that hospital bed in Germany, enduring a procession of surgeries.

Weeks later, Curtis was wheeled onto a plane and flown to the United States, where he would rotate through more hospitals, eventually undergoing 28 operations.

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Years passed. Curtis spent them sitting around the house. Life was slow; he gained weight. He watched his son, Tyler, grow up, pass through each grade of elementary school and, eventually, develop a fascination for a hobby: fencing.

One day when Curtis was taking Tyler to his fencing class outside Portland, Ore., the coach approached the retired Army sergeant and asked if he had ever considered “wheelchair fencing.”

Wheelchair fencing is a sport that requires a special chair, but the wheels are superfluous — because the fencers don’t move. For the whole match, they stare into each other’s masks at point-blank range, jabbing and swiping their blades.

“My really only concern when I started was, would I physically be able to do it?” Curtis says now, one year later.

The answer is yes. Turns out, his military training — and attention to detail — transferred over. Improvise, adapt and overcome, he would say to himself.

Curtis started practicing on a stool. But what he needed was a fencing wheelchair. The Department of Defense paid for one, as part of a program to compensate disabled veterans who become athletes.

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Now, instead of sitting around the house all day, Curtis spent his days practicing for hours on end, sitting stationary in his special chair and parrying, refining his blade work. Soon his first competition approached in Milwaukee in October 2012. He had no aspirations other than to make it through the contest to see what it would be like, up against wheelchair fencers far more experienced than he.

Curtis came in third place.

“That kind of got the spark going,” he says. Plus, it didn’t hurt that he was losing some of that weight.

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Nearby, the University of Oregon’s architecture school was seeking a new option for students who wanted not just to take notes and tests, but to apply their knowledge to help other people. Kiersten Muenchinger, the director of the school’s product design program, approached two adjunct professors who were designers for Nike and Adidas. She wanted them to lead a class that would create devices to make life easier for disabled athletes.

And those athletes would be veterans, too.

The designers — Bob Lucas and Wilson Smith — had work to do. They contacted the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and asked for subjects — the people who would help their students help them. The VA suggested three veterans who had been wounded overseas and turned to athletics in their lives back home: Kevin Pannell, an Army veteran whose legs were blown off by grenades in Iraq in 2004 and is now a snowboarder; Tony Davis, a Navy officer paralyzed in a car crash who is now a decorated rower; and Leo Curtis.

The two teachers called their new course Adaptive Products: Enabling Athletes With Disabilities. They offered the course and the students rushed in. Each athlete had a team of five assigned to him.

Curtis, eager to help and to be helped, began working with Natasha Michalowsky, Rebecca Swofford, Teressa Hamje, Michael Roy and Thane Lochte for the 10-week period.

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Other than the obvious disparity, wheelchair fencing looks different from able-bodied fencing because the two competitors can’t move forward, backward or side to side. They have to sit in one place and lunge forward with their torso and arm, then snap back into the chair.

The lunging can be a problem for some wheelchair fencers who don’t have the upperbody mobility to bend back and forth quickly. Their muscles can fatigue easily, too. Then there’s the feet — some people in wheelchairs have legs of different lengths, and they can’t rest both on the footrest to get enough leverage to move their chests forward. Some also have trouble gripping the handle of the blade because they had lost control of their fingers in whatever accident put them in a chair.

In most worlds these problems would remain unsolved. In Portland, though, they became challenges for the group of pioneers at the University of Oregon.

The students on team Curtis asked him what was currently available to assist wheelchair fencers. The answer was easy: hardly anything, except wheelchairs. The slate was blank and they got to work.

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During the course, Curtis met with the students on their campus about four times. But the real field testing happened at Curtis’s fencing club. Every weekend, at least one or two of the students would drive out to watch Curtis practice.

Then Curtis would come up to them and tell them to sit in the chair. “If you really want to understand what I’m talking about, you have to see it from my point of view,” he would tell them. And he would sit across from them, and show them how to parry forward, or pull off a feint attack. The students realized how someone with a loose grip would struggle, or why the seat in the wheelchair wouldn’t hold certain people when they lunged forward.

During those sessions with students, other innovations were birthed to further assist wheelchair fencers. In the roadside explosion 10 years ago, Curtis was hurt the most in his dominant arm, which he uses to grasp his fencing weapon. His right wrist was entirely reconstructed, and he suffers from neurological damage — when he moves it, it hurts, and he can’t control it as well as other people can. Michalowsky’s solution was to design an “acupression sleeve” that fits around Curtis’s arm and across his body, anchored at his opposite shoulder. Across the back of the sleeve, the name “CURTIS” is brandished in a sports jersey style.

Essentially the sleeve — which Michalowsky calls a cobra sleeve because it snakes across his body — acts as a massager for Curtis’s fatigued muscles. Inspired by small adjustment dials on snowboard boots, she added a dial system so the fencer can change the sensation on the fly. Her goal was to make something similar to what the earliest fencers used as they competed, sitting on horses: armor to prepare for a fight.

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“I wanted my cobra sleeve to be something that would improve Leo’s performance, lock in his focus and increase his confidence knowing that he is geared up and ready to fight with apparel designed just for him,” she says.

Another device was the specialized footrest. Curtis’s left leg is shorter than his right, because his ankle was essentially blown away, and his feet don’t rest equally on the platform at the bottom of his chair. Imagine standing on one tiptoe while your other foot is flat, and moving your chest back and forth rapidly. That’s what it’s like for him and for other wheelchair athletes with unequal legs. The footrest that was designed by the class is slanted, and can be adjusted for any size.

Then there was the cushion. Wheelchair fencing rules dictate that the seats must be foldable, with no spring-loaded devices. So Roy created a cushion with a sturdy type of material that allowed Curtis — and any wheelchair fencer with no abdominal muscles — to spring back up after lunging forward. The material created energy when Curtis lunged forward, so when he needed to release, it would push him back up.

All of the inventions are in the prototype phase, meaning they can’t be marketed or even used in competitions yet. The rules committee would have to approve them before athletes are able to benefit from their use — but the students are hopeful that their designs will soon be used by professional wheelchair athletes.

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In 1992, a year after Curtis fought in Mogadishu, Somalia, he was stationed in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. He says it was the most disturbing thing he’s ever seen in his life, far worse than Somalia or Iraq, because he was armed with 500 rounds of ammunition and ordered to shoot to kill Americans if they approached him and didn’t stop. Standing in the street, stationary, Curtis thought to himself that the military was not designed to police its own people.

Twenty-two years later, as Curtis sits stationary in the chair, the blade in his hand, his focus is so acute that he can barely hear his coach yelling at him from the sideline.

“There’s an intensity that when I sit down and compete,” he says, “everything else just doesn’t matter for that time frame.”

When he loses, Curtis adopts the mentality of a football coach training his team to do better next time. He watches the video of his defeat, writing a synopsis in a journal: what his opponent did to get the better of him, what he did that worked well and what didn’t.

After Curtis placed third in his first competition, in Milwaukee in 2012, he was addicted.

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He bounded on to an international contest in Montreal, where he was seeded 41st out of 65 wheelchair fencers in his category. He finished in 12th place. Then he moved on to compete in Italy, then Warsaw. In mid-2013, he competed in the international championship for wheelchair fencing in Budapest. He placed 25th out of 65.

Those trips aren’t cheap. Unlike able-bodied athletes who represent the United States, disabled competitors have to pay their own way. The costs can run up to $4,000 each, including flights, hotels, food and getting around. Thankfully, another group has jumped in to take care of that burden: the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a charity that has an arm for disabled veteran athletes called Operation Rebound. Curtis estimates that they have paid close to $20,000 just this past season for him to compete.

Since he started, Curtis has risen 11 spots, and is now ranked 30th in the world — a remarkable rise in just one season. He trains for five hours a day, six days a week.

But the surgeries aren’t over. And his vision is getting worse, especially in his left eye. He has to wear glasses now.

Improvise, adapt and overcome.

And if everything goes well, he might have some new tools with him to help him along, too.

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