Breckenridge event shows advances in adaptive technology make skiing more natural for amputees
December 7, 2017
Back in 1998, 23-year-old Brian Bartlett was like a lot of other 20-something ski bums, a sponsored athlete with visions of starring in adventure documentaries.
Bartlett's life changed in an instant when a car struck him from behind, severing his right leg from his body, above the knee. He was amputated on the spot and pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
But he lived. Still in the hospital after his operations, Bartlett decided he wouldn't stop skiing, whatever that meant.
"I would never have wanted to go through that," Bartlett said, "but on the other hand, I wouldn't be doing the work I am doing now. I never planned to do the work I am doing now. I didn't even know any amputees (at the time)."
When initially out of the hospital, Bartlett took up three-track skiing. It's a way to get down the mountain — common among individuals with above-knee amputations and single limb weaknesses — where the skier balances via three points of contact with the snow.
But while skiing in the apparatus, a thought occurred to Bartlett.
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"I want what I had before," he said.
Longing for those memories of ripping powder down through the trees and dropping cliffs, the world championship para athlete Bartlett began to make his own prosthetic knees to ski on. Then, in 2005, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center hired him to build prosthetics for the U.S. Army.
Fast forward more than a decade, and Bartlett is one of dozens of vendors at Disabled Sports USA's 30th annual The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge.
Here, for the first time he's showcasing his latest invention, the 2018 Crossover Hybrid Prosthetic Knee. It's his first prosthetic that connects to an osseointegrated implant, or one that doesn't need a socket prosthesis. Essentially, it provides a skiable knee to a new demographic of amputees.
And on the mountain, what does it allow those amputees to do?
"It allows them to rip," Bartlett said. "I mean, you can really lay into this.
"The point is we can get those movements and those articulations in our legs," Bartlett continued, "which are completely mechanical. But to the naked eye, the movement looks fluid. And so that's what we are capturing, the fact that we are not rigid and stiff. We are being dynamic and we are moving and we are being fluid in our movement on mechanical structures."
Within a ski and snowboard gear culture where the newest advancements and editions are touted annually, technology for amputee shredders has also made quantum leaps in the past two decades. And for many amputee skiers like Bartlett and the executive director of Disabled Sports USA, Kirk Bauer, the technological advancements center around one thing: making sports for disabled athletes as natural as possible.
The Vietnam War veteran Bauer's first three-track lesson took place in California 48 years ago this month, back when that was the only kind of skiing Bauer could try. Nearly a half-century later, not only are there more kinds of disabled skiing that leg amputees like him can take up — such as single-track or "mono," "bi-ski" and Bartlett's above knee prosthetics — but there are also other kinds of disabled people that can find a way to ski or snowboard.
"We used to just take our legs off if we were above the knee," Bauer said, "because skiing is all knees and you couldn't use your knee, so you didn't even use it. Now, I know a guy that's an above-knee amputee like myself and he is doing 360s on their snowboards. The artificial limbs are progressing to the point where they are much more functional and they can be worn and used as a regular limb by the amputee."
Bartlett's revolutionary prosthetic knees aside, Bauer points to recent improvements in bi-skis and mono skis as examples where the industry has borrowed influences from bicycle, motorcycle and automotive sports to improve adaptive skiing suspension systems.
Denver's Enabling Technologies is one of those adaptive equipment providers that is working to develop a more realistic ride experience via their new Dynamique bi-ski design. And via its new lighter models that improve independence, the company feels it's getting closer to "the closest experience to skiing," for those who might be, say, quadrapalegic or have multiple sclerosis.
"Some of the old gear is basically like a toboggan compared to what we have now," Will said, "with the high level motorcycle shocks and ATV shocks. Everything is turning toward a more dynamic feel."
"And some of those pieces of equipment really are pieces of technological art," Gilbert added. "They really are tuned out nicely. And the racers, you get to the Paralympic guys and girls that are out there, they are on stuff that's like being on a World Cup ski. Their units are the best of the best. You can buy a small car for what they are skiing on."
The ski and snowboard gear industry has molded itself around the adaptive athlete market, in some cases literally. Once case is Aspen Seating, another vendor at The Hartford Ski Spectacular that molds custom seating for an adaptive athlete's torso much like a ski shop molds a boot for an individual's foot.
It's just one of numerous ways adaptive athletes can customize equipment to enable a natural ski or snowboard. And when you add all of these advances together, Bartlett says adaptive skiing has become so much more natural that, at times, fellow able-bodied skiers don't know the difference.
And just how close does Bartlett feel the technology is, on a scale from 0 to 100, to what he "had before?"
"Oh, I'm at 100, no problem," Bartlett said. "But the thing is, you are only at 100 here and there. You can't be at 100 all the time across the board. I don't know how many turns I'm going to make on that one run, probably 50 to 100 turns easily, and probably four or five of those I'm going to feel like, 'Hey, I'm off something. I just did a wrong turn, or I put my body in the wrong position.' But then you are going to have moments where you are skiing and everything is linking up and the flow is good."
Help via health care
Bartlett's advances with his Crossover prosthetic also tread into a difficulty reality for many adaptive athletes: health insurance coverage. Thanks to the Crossover's "walk mode," the product is pre-approved for insurance, Bartlett says. When this kind of adaptive gear costs in the ballpark of $5,000, that's a big deal.
"You know, it's more than a product," Bartlett said. "When people purchase something like this, they are trying to get something back that they lost emotionally in their life, physically."
"Really," he added, "where it can go in my mind is limitless. It's the sense that what I am trying to do is make a product that is the marriage between the mechanical bone structure with an integrated artificial muscle structure."
So, after all these years and physical setbacks, Bartlett is proud of the specific kind of ski bum he's become after all.
"You meet a bunch of wounded soldiers," Bartlett said, "that are saying, 'Hey, I want what you have. I want to be able to do what you do. And when can I have it and how can you help me?' It's hard to say, 'No,' especially (to) somebody who served our country and just got blown up. I mean, all you want to do is help. And because of them, I am able to be a ski bum."