Athletic Wheelchairs

There are fewer bookies and office pools, but the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's (NWBA) March Madness is as competitive and intense as the National Collegiate Athletic Association's. The biggest differences between the NWBA Final Four and The Big Dance is the presence of wheelchairs and a modest one-second addition to the three-second lane violation rule.

Wheelchair basketball is the most popular and most publicized of wheelchair sports, but it is hardly the only. Recreational and competitive tennis, racing, cycling and quad rugby give wheelchair athletes the opportunity to simply stay in shape or an outlet for their competitive drive. For those without time for organized competition, cycles and sports products enable casual recreation.

Wheelchair athletics is growing, and manufacturers have responded with specialty athletic wheelchairs designed to meet the comfort and performance needs of competitive and recreational athletes. Manufacturers offer recreational chairs and specialty products - such as cycles - that give users the chance to exercise alone or with friends and family along streets or trails.

Manufacturers also offer high-end, high-performance specialty chairs for amateur and professional athletes. Each sport has its own line of chairs to meet the needs of its athletes and the nuances of the particular competition. Specialty basketball, racing, tennis and rugby chairs can be customized for high- and low-need athletes.

"What is really popular right now are the hand cycles," said Mary Carol Peterson, occupational therapist at Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare Corp.'s Top End

Products

Invacare's Top End makes custom wheelchairs for everyday use, hand cycles and sport wheelchairs for basketball, tennis, rugby and racing. Longmont, Colo.-based Sunrise Medical Inc.'s Quickie line includes hand cycles and sports wheelchairs for basketball, tennis, racing, rugby, hockey and other activities.

"We cover every sport that is out there," said Jim Black, product manager for Sunrise's sports product line.

Much like the Trans Am or Porsche in the automobile industry, athletic wheelchairs are built for speed, maneuverability and performance. Athletic products feature lighter composition materials, different wheels and fewer features, which eliminates unnecessary weight, Black said.

Basketball is the oldest and most popular wheelchair sport, and there are myriad products available to fit athletes of different skill levels and abilities. For novices, Invacare's A-4 is rigid, lightweight and adjustable. Of course in basketball height is of paramount importance, so players need to adjust their height to fit their play and position. The Quickie All Court and Quickie 3D are two other options for basketball players.

As players improve, Invacare's Chris Peterson, manager of product development, Top End, recommends the Terminator BB or X-Terminator BB. The choice of the NWBA's Dallas Mavericks, these chairs can include a tapered seat, rigid seat pan, fixed aluminum side guards and offensive wings.

"Things have come a long way in 20 years," said Randy McGlocklin, a member of the NWBA's Dallas Edge and a database manager with Sprint Corp. in Irving, Texas.

For athletes that strive to be Bjorn Borg instead of Magic Johnson, Invacare and Sunrise offer specialty tennis wheelchairs.

"Improvements in the technology and performance of wheelchairs in recent years has helped increase the popularity of the sport," Peterson wrote on Invacare's Web site.

Invacare's three-wheel T-3 chair revolutionized tennis and made the three-wheel chair the sport standard, according to Peterson. One less wheel makes it lighter, roll better and turn quicker. The aluminum-frame T-3 has adjustable front and rear seat heights and an adjustable camber system and axle position camber tube. It also includes many custom options.

The Quickie 3D Tennis chair is also a three-wheel chair that is usable for different skill levels.

Athletes with a need for speed can enjoy competitive racing. Today, racing chairs are lightweight, aerodynamic three-wheel machines.

"Once considered merely a pastime for the disabled, wheelchair racing now is a high powered sport for high caliber athletes," according to Peterson.

The Quickie A-Frame Races features an aluminum 7000 series from. Its integrated, full-fender design creates a narrower cage, according to Sunrise. The Quickie T-Tube racer features an aluminum or chrome-moly frame with tube style fenders. It has precision steering for sure handling and an integrated, full-fender design.

"(Athletes) are always pushing the envelope to find what can make the faster and better," Mary Carol Peterson said.

Invacare Top End's Eliminator series includes customized chairs and options for beginners to high-performance racers. The aluminum Eliminator series features integral, wrap-around fenders, three cage designs, multiple upholstery for kneeling, amputee or traditional, and other performance enhancements. Options include carbon fiber wheels, aero bars, a cordless computer plus others.

Handcycling is a growing sport for competition and recreation. Handcycles enable users to join local bike clubs for recreation or to compete in cycling meets. Users "pedal" with their hands, and accomplished riders can average 15 to 20 miles per hour.

Invacare Top End offers the Li'l Excelerator for children ages 7 to 14 and the Excelerator or Excelerator XLT for adults. The Excelerator is a seven-speed upright sitting-bike. When cycling moves from casual recreation to serious cycling or competition, the XLT is a serious bike built for speed that can be upgraded to 24 speeds.

Sunrise's Quickie Mach 2 is a three- or seven-speed hand cycle designed for smooth cranking and easy shifting. The Mach 3 is a high-performance cycle with 24 or 36 speeds that is built for maneuverability and speed.

Other sports for wheelchair athletes include hockey or quad rugby -- once called murderball due its aggressive nature, according to Peterson. Quad rugby is a quadriplegic equivalent to basketball, and it enables quadriplegic players of all abilities to participate equally.

The Quickie All Court can be used for rugby, hockey or football, and Invacare's X-Terminator QR is made especially for rugby players. The Terminator QR can be made for offensive or defensive players or as a combination of both.

Marketing Athletic Products

One major difference between standard chairs and athletic chairs is the amount of customization. Products are not manufactured until an order is placed, and home medical equipment providers or therapists take myriad measurements to customize the chair for each individual athlete, Black said.

"Once you build something that is fixed, it is hard to change," Black said.

That fact make the measurements crucial. Mary Carol Peterson said approximately 30 measurements and considerations are included in an order. The athlete's height and width are required in addition to chair considerations such as wheel size and seat height.

"Each chair is designed to be custom built," she said.

Both Sunrise and Invacare work with providers to train them and educate them on filling out the questions and order form to ensure accuracy and a good fit.

"We coach them through the form," Mary Carol Peterson said.

Although some providers specialize in athletic chairs, she said most athletic wheelchairs are pull products driven by athletes. Many get measured at sporting events or ability expos and come to the provider to place the order.

"A lot of our customers realize the dealers may not have the expertise (to fit the chairs)," Mary Carol Peterson said. "They realize how tough it is."

Besides the measurements, the frequent lack of reimbursement by insurance companies scare some providers, Black said. Despite that challenge, athletic wheelchairs are a $10 - $15 million annual market, and for many athletes the chance to compete and exercise is well worth the several thousand dollar price tag.

"We need to target customers more as a resource to educate," Black said.

McGlocklin is one of those athletes willing to pay for the chance to compete. McGlocklin has been a wheelchair athlete for 21 years. He currently plays for the Dallas Edge, a wheelchair basketball team, and he has raced and played tennis.

"I wanted the opportunity to compete," he said.

NWBA

The oldest organized athletic wheelchair competition, the roots of the NWBA began more than 50 years ago. Today, 192 men's, women's, intercollegiate and youth teams compete in 22 conferences throughout the United States of America and Canada.

Wheelchair basketball is the original wheelchair sport, and it remains the nation's largest and one of the most organized, according to Jay Kennedy of the NWBA. According to the NWBA, wheelchair sports began following World War Two as paralyzed veterans sought on outlook for their energy. Games began in California and New England Department of Veterans Affairs' hospitals. It soon spread and today is a highly competitive sport with approximately with approximately 2,300 players.

McGlocklin's team practices approximately once a week and play approximately 25 games each season.

The NWBA's March Madness consists of teams in divisions 1 and 2 vying for the top stop in each division. A team reaching the final four must first win the sectional and regional games. Sectionals consists of 16 tournaments throughout the United States, according to Kennedy. Regionals consist of four sites - Mid-West, West, North and South. This year, the NWBA had approximately 58 teams participating.

Manufacturers also sponsor athletes and teams. Sunrise's Team Quickie is an organization of world-class wheelchair athletes who compete in a variety of sports, including basketball, tennis, quad rugby and racing. Team Invacare includes athletes competing in basketball, tennis, quad rugby, cycling and racing.

Although the lack of or limited reimbursement discourages some providers and athletes, manufactures are helping. Invacare offers a financing program that can enable an athlete to have a quality chair and pay less than $50 per month.

Mary Carol Peterson said, "Finding the money to buy these products is really

difficult for people, but they are very important."

David Kiley - the "Michael Jordan of wheelchair basketball" is not as famous as His Airness, but his sport is just as intense. The ranks of Kiley and other wheelchair athletes - like El Capitan climber Mark Wellman - are growing, and these athletes need a place to learn about and purchase their competition chairs.

This article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of HME Business.

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