EXTREME Mobility Junkies: To Live Life on the Edge, Wheelchair Athletes Harness Improved and Accessible Adaptive Equipment


Do not try this at home. Freezing wind burns your face as you race downhill, tipping your ski, through blinding white powder. Salt stings your eyes as you embrace the smooth curve of an ocean wave and glide right through the pipe — all without the use of your legs.

A label traditionally reserved for daredevils and stuntmen, taking it to the extreme has quickly become a battle cry from some wheelchair users. In today's innovative world of extreme sports, wild-at-heart athletes are paving the way for extreme adaptive equipment for such extreme sports as skiing and surfing.

"We're all driven by that thrill-seeking thing, those of us who do these things," said Tom Cannalonga, of Extreme Adaptive Sports also known as SitSki.com. "The adrenaline rush is what we're after, and whether you're standing up or not, it doesn't matter, the risk is inherent with whatever you're doing."

And that risk is what makes the thrill that much sweeter for extreme athletes.

Survival of the Fittest

As extreme sports gain in popularity, injuries related to these activities also rise. Some injuries are fully recoverable, and these injuries, which are seen as a badge of honor for most athletes, only serve as motivation to get back up and try again.

But what if you can't get up and try again? The National Spinal Cord Injury Association estimates that approximately 8 percent of spinal cord injuries are sports related.

Certified ski instructor and enthusiast Cannalonga, who injured his spinal cord in a 1981 surfing accident, simply found another way.

"Not to use words like 'nuts,' but if you think about it, I think there's really been a paradigm shift in the way people do things. I mean, everything is so extreme — the games, the video games, everything is just kind of really at a razor's edge; it's speed. And so these kids, who I believe more and more yearly are becoming injured, want to get right back into some sort of a similar type of extreme sport," he said.

Cannalonga skied before and after his accident. His Web site SitSki.com centralizes what was initially scare material on disabled skiing.

The mono-ski, the equipment of choice for disabled skiers, features a shock mounted to a metal frame, mounted to a ski with a seat on it. Mono- or bi-skiing can be practiced by individuals with a wide variety of disabilities, including spina bifida, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.

"Even someone who's literally paralyzed from the neck down, we can seatbelt them in, we can strap their hands and if they can just tip their head back and forth, that can be enough to get this piece of equipment to start making the turn because it's based on just balance," said Cannalonga.

Much like Cannalonga, Jesse Billauer, named one of the Top 100 Surfers to Watch by Surfer Magazine and a founder of Life Rolls On ?- a non-profit foundation dedicated to increasing the awareness of spinal cord injuries ?- injured his spinal cord in a surfing accident in 1996. But the injury couldn't keep him out of the water.

"Jesse's desire to 'surf again' was a burning desire," said Richard Yelland, director of They Will Surf Again, a program for disabled surfers within the Life Rolls On Foundation. "He would surf again at any cost."

Channel Islands Surfboards' Al Merrick, a noteworthy board builder in Santa Barbara, Calif., built a surf board for Billauer. The 8-foot-long board is a bit thicker and wider than most boards that length and is equipped with an extra rocker toward the nose to keep it out of the water. The board, which is padded with Astrodeck foam, incorporates foot straps that double as elbow supports. Billauer uses the straps to harness his weight and maneuver the board.

At first, Billauer would hold onto someone's leg as he was paddled into the surf, said Yellend. A group of friends would then push Billauer into a wave as he steered with his upper body. At an event in 2001, he was towed into the surf by a rescue sled behind a personal watercraft, which allowed him to catch more waves.

Four annual surfing events sponsored by They Will Surf Again are geared toward disabled surfers and non-surfers alike.

"The first They Will Surf Again event for disabled surfers demonstrated to all involved that these surfers are not disabled but uniquely able. There were surfers like Jesse who had perfected their skill and those who had never surfed before. All participated with a tremendous amount of success," said Yellend. Of course, surfing has some extreme risks as well. Those with limited use of their arms or no use of their arms cannot roll over and get air if they fall off the board, said Yellend. Billauer said that upper body control is essential to successful surfing.

To combat these risks, They Will Surf Again ensures that many volunteers are in the water during surfing events so that no one who falls off a board is in the water unassisted for more than a couple of seconds.

Charging the Market

Getting mobility devices for some extreme sports is relatively easy and getting easier. On Cannalonga's Web site, a list of manufacturers of mono- and bi-skis includes ISOSKI, Freedom Factory, Strange Research & Development, Yetti, New Hall's Wheels and Beneficial Designs, Inc. Cannalonga also posts product reviews supplied by him and other skiers.

Cannalonga, who has a background in mechanical engineering, also developed a universal boot system, which makes it easy to use any ski equipment on the market, and a torso belt, both of which were not previously available.

"We call it the boot or the foot of the mono-ski. (It) resembles a ski boot. It has a toe and a heel just like a ski boot, so it plugs right into the binding so we can plug in to any ski," said Cannalonga.

The frame and shocks of mono- and bi-skis also have slight differences. Frames of aluminum, steel or titanium provide more strength, and the shock has some internal differences.

Surf boards are more challenging to come by. Yellend said that soft, 8-9-foot long boards that have custom devices are necessary. Not many manufacturers are producing custom surfboards of this type.

"These kinds of inventions are developed by those pushing the extremes of the sport," said Yellend. "Jesse ? is putting himself in more danger and requiring higher performance, so he is going to start thinking of what kind of performance gear he might have to develop, or invent, if it is not immediately available."

In response to the buzz created by Billauer, Channel Islands Surfboards has released a Jesse Billauer model, which will allow other adaptive surfers to access the same technology, said Josh Billauer, president of Life Rolls On.

"The surf boards are progressing," Josh Billauer said. "A few years ago, Jesse was riding what was equivalent to an aircraft carrier, a 10-foot long board that was difficult to turn. Now he is down to a battleship, a board less than 7 feet long that has much more maneuverability."

Josh Billauer would also like to see increased manufacturing of custom wetsuits that are easier to access and have special padding in the elbows and knees and flotation built in.

"There are many, many disabled people who would be candidates for these products if they just knew they existed," he said.

Sweeter Rewards

The world of extreme mobility is growing fast. On SitSki.com alone, a list of extreme adaptive sports links includes mountain biking, hand cycling, water skiing, wind surfing, paddling (canoeing or kayaking), scuba diving and sit snowboarding.

Though danger is the primary draw, extreme adaptive sports instills a sense of independence for those who are disabled.

"I'm like one of the first ones there and I'll go and ski all day and come home completely independent," said Cannalonga.

Billauer said his love for the ocean is the greatest reward of surfing. "It brings me peace, relaxation, freedom, and I just love surfing ... it's my life and I will do it as long as I can."

What limits the future of extreme mobility innovations is only the imagination.

"I've been hurt for 24 years now. And what I've seen in my time in a chair, the equipment that's being made now and the things that people are doing now, there are no boundaries," said Cannalonga. "The boundaries are just in your mind."

This article originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of Mobility Management.

Rolling Dynamics, Rolling Resistance &  Optimizing Wheeled Prosthetics