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Hi-tech prosthetics aid Paralympic dreams

red August 21, 1996
Web posted at: 10: 40 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Technology is playing an important role in the 1996 Paralympic Games, where high-tech prosthetics have given some wheelchair athletes a boost to world-class status.

In the 1968 games, events such as the shot-put and discus throw were performed only from a wheelchair, and running was unheard of. But now the stiff and heavy wooden legs have been replaced by models with flexible feet that put spring in the step.

"Actually, the old legs ... you used to be able to hold them and drop them and they would fall right over," explains Paralympic athlete Karen Lewis. But her own foot, she says, would "bounce back up."

The new feet and ankles come in all shapes and sizes. The frames, made of carbon fiber graphite, bend and flex. Bent, the frames store energy; extended, they release it.

And like shoes, there are different feet for different activities -- some for walking, others just for sprinting. The sprint model is a relatively simple construction. It's designed, inventor Van Phillips says, for moving the body as quickly as you can in a straight line. (374K QuickTime movie)movie icon

For jumping, the "vertical shock" model -- with telescoping tubes -- provides the bounce.

movie icon (357K QuickTime movie)

And for above-the-knee amputees, hydraulic cylinders can be adjusted to control the knee action. Prosthetist Larry Rice says the frame is made of a combination of titanium and aircraft aluminum, giving it the strength to endure a runner's pounding.

Another boost are the sockets that fit the artificial leg to the stump. Modern sockets are lightweight, and fit and feel like a second skin.


"I think the ability to train over a period of time without the suffering breakdown and complications ... is what's making a big difference," athlete Kurt Collier says.

Athletes who were once told they would never walk again now race down the track toward Paralympic -- and world -- records. The athletes say it's no longer the prosthetic that holds them back -- it's their able-bodied legs, hips, ankles and back that limit what they can do.


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