Composite photo of Floris Meijer, who uses a device called a monoski that allows him to ski in a seated positon. The monoski is bright orange as well as his helmet, and he stands out from the snow as he carves his way around the gates on the Alpine ski course.
For professional athletes, gear is just as important as a training regime. Paralympic athletes use the same sports equipment as their Olympic counterparts. Many also use adaptive versions of equipment – or new tools entirely – which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the sport.
“Without adaptive tools we wouldn’t be able to perform the way we do,” says three-time Paralympic snowboarder Mike Schultz. “In some cases that tool or that adaptive device is the difference in performance from one athlete to another.”
International competition for athletes with disabilities dates back nearly a century, and the Winter Paralympics have grown over the years to include more sports and disability types. The “para” in Paralympics comes from a Greek word meaning “beside”. A non-disabled sport and its para sport equivalent can be thought of as two disciplines of the same sport.
More sports means more kinds of equipment that has been built from scratch to suit athletes’ abilities.
According to the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) guidelines, adaptive sports equipment must be safe to use, regulated by the sport’s rules and can’t artificially enhance an athlete’s performance. They should also be commercially available to any athlete, rather than bespoke tools made for a select few. Athletes register their equipment for approval with the IPC months in advance of competing.
The Winter Paralympics are open to athletes with disabilities in their vision, limbs and body, including muscle, control and coordination issues, depending on the sport. To allow athletes with different kinds of disabilities to compete against each other fairly, some sports use a 4-step classification system involving assessments by medical and sports professionals to determine the impact of an athlete’s disability on their sport performance. For example, two skiers with the same kind of spinal cord injury may not have the same level of trunk control, and may be assigned different classes.
Para Alpine and para Nordic skiing
Alpine and Nordic cross-country skiing have been featured in every Winter Paralympics since the Games began in 1976.
These skiers are grouped into three categories:
- Skiers with limb disabilities who ski standing up like conventional skiers
- Skiers with trunk control and leg disabilities who compete sitting on a frame attached to one or two skis
- Skiers with blindness or low vision
Each category has multiple classes, and each class has a number or percentage depending on the sport discipline. An athlete’s final score is calculated using their scoring time and the number or percentage of their class and discipline, which helps compare their performance across the classes in each category.
Paralympic athletes use the same kinds of skis and poles as Olympic athletes, but may use just one ski or one or no poles depending on their condition.
“When you put the ProCarve directly on the ski, it’s much better because the impact from the ground [goes] through the ski directly into the prosthesis and directly into the athlete,” says Julian Napp, the technical director of Ottobock’s Paralympic service team. “If you have a ski shoe then you always have a little bit of movement between the ski, the ski shoe and the prosthesis, so you cannot control the ski 100%.”
Skiers who compete in the sitting classes use a sit-ski or monoski if they’re participating in a Nordic or Alpine event. These tools are made for athletes with lower limb disabilities and limited sitting balance and trunk control. Depending on their trunk control, athletes can choose to train as a standing or sitting skier at the beginning of their career.
According to Paul Speight, the owner of adaptive ski equipment supplier Spokes’N Motion based in Denver, the equipment typically costs a few thousand dollars per rig, and the customisation that professional athletes require pushes the price higher.
“For Alpine skiing, it could be somewhere around about $8,000, $10,000,” says Speight, who successfully captained the New Zealand ski team to a silver medal at the Innsbruck Paralympic games in 1984. “For Nordic skiing, you’re probably talking somewhere between $3,000 to $5,000.”
There are three classes for athletes with vision disabilities based on how far they can see and the width of their field of vision. For these athletes, it’s not just their equipment that’s designed to be adaptive – it’s also how they ski.
Para biathlon combines cross-country skiing with shooting. Athletes must take laps around a course and then shoot a series of targets at a shooting range attached to the course.
“At the competition site there are a lot of volunteers and they’re really eager to try it,” says Jussi Kinnunen, the Director of Product Development at Eko-Aims LTD. “It’s so hard to know when the pitch is high enough.”
“They hear [a high pitch] and think – ‘It must be, I’m already there!’ – and it’s not even close.”
After an international cohort of para snowboarders successfully lobbied the IPC, snowboarding became the newest addition to the Paralympics in 2014. Snowboarders typically choose the shape and material components of their boards based on the discipline, terrain and their snowboarding style.
“Adaptive athletes may not have the ability to lever a board onto its edge the same way an able-bodied athlete would,” says Sean Martin, founder of Donek Snowboards in Denver, using the term many Paralympic snowboarders prefer. Martin has designed boards for multiple U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
“We have to think a little bit more about where their disability is in order to determine the width of the board that’s going to work best for them, as well as stiffness.”
Snowboarders use their toes and heels to apply pressure to the edges of a board, twisting it to steer it across a course. A para athlete may not have the muscle strength to generate the necessary pressure, or their prosthetic foot may not flex enough. There are several ways to make a board softer and easier to twist, and Donek designers typically change the number, size or position of the ash laminates in the snowboard’s laminated wooden core.
Sometimes, adjusting the equipment isn’t enough.
“Your prosthesis requires a specific alignment in order for you to be balanced on top of the board,” says Paralympic snowboarder Mike Schultz. “An able-bodied rider can make those adjustments on the fly. If we’re off even 2 or 3 degrees it changes enormously how the snowboard flows.”
Schultz’s left leg was amputated above the knee after an accident in 2008, and his dissatisfaction with available sports prostheses inspired him to design and build his own. He started snowboarding in 2011 while testing his MotoKnee prosthesis.
“I ended up customising my feet and my board together, where I would narrow the board, and then I would get bigger feet,” says Purdy, who had a double below-knee amputation at 19 after developing sepsis due to meningitis. As Purdy practiced for the 2014 Sochi Games, she realised the toes of her prosthetic feet were too soft to apply the pressure she needed to control her board.
“Being a double-leg amputee, I relied 100% on these prosthetic feet – they had to do what I needed them to do.”
How Amy customised her own feet
“I took one foot from one brand and an ankle from another brand, turned the ankle backwards and then put wood under the heel so I could get over on my toe edge easier so my ankles would bend.”
“I’m a woman’s size 7, but I ended up getting a men’s size 10 and I would cut the toes off to get the edge of the carbon fibre all the way to the edge of my board.”
“It’s always really great to experiment with the adaptive riders because they’re very unique in their situation,” says Martin. “They’re always trying to innovate because they’re doing something so new and so different.”
Para ice hockey
Para ice hockey, also known as ice sled or ice sledge hockey, was invented in the 1960s by patients at a Swedish rehabilitation centre who attached ice hockey skate blades to metal sleds to navigate the rink. The same rink, puck and rules are used as in Olympic ice hockey, but players use sleds and two double-edged sticks instead of one.
Though it is technically a mixed-gender sport, only three female players have competed at the Paralympics: Norway’s Brit Mjaasund Oejen (1994) and Lena Schroeder (2018), and China’s Jing Yu (2022).
Athletes with lower limb disabilities – such as a difference in leg length greater than 7 cm, difficulty controlling or coordinating leg movements, or a restricted range of movement – are eligible to play at the Paralympics. Before joining a team, they are evaluated on their range and control of motion.
“It’s amazing how durable those sleds are at the Paralympic level, because those guys are really rough on equipment,” says Laurie Howlett, owner of Unique Inventions Inc., an ice hockey equipment store in Otonabee, Canada. Howlett has designed and built ice hockey sleds since 1992 and counts several Paralympians as customers, including Lena Schroeder, who rode the Ballistic model at the 2018 Games.
“I’m always a nervous wreck when I see them because of the beating that those things take,” says Howlett. “The frame itself only weighs 2 lbs (0.9 kg) or something, and the sleds are anywhere from 9 lbs up to 12 lbs (4 – 5.4 kg), depending on the size of the player.”
Wheelchair curling is the only sport in these Games regulated by the World Curling Federation rather than the IPC, and the teams must mandatorily be mixed gender. Though non-disabled people can also play wheelchair curling, eligible athletes at the Paralympic level have a disability that affects their legs and use a wheelchair in their daily life.
The goal of curling is to “throw” i.e. slide stones weighing nearly 20 kg (44 lbs) from one end of an ice sheet towards a target on the other end, knocking out competition on the way. Non-disabled curlers sweep the ice ahead of the gliding stone with a brush to adjust its path and distance but wheelchair curlers play from a stationary position and can’t sweep the ice. Since they can’t adjust the stone’s trajectory, they must be even more precise in their delivery.
Though the WCF strictly regulates the brushes Olympic athletes can use, for delivery sticks it focuses more on what the stick can and cannot do. Any feature that helps a player aim or throw the stone such as a laser, spring or motor is banned.
“We don’t have a handicap system or variable point system,” says Hugh Millikin, the Vice President (Pacific-Asia) of the WCF. “That means we need to be more flexible with what they can do to the equipment to suit a particular athlete’s disability.”
The Winter Paralympics are both a platform for athletic prowess and a testament to innovative adaptive engineering and design.
“As Paralympic athletes, we are athletes first,” says snowboarder Mike Schultz. “We work just as hard, or in some cases harder, than able-bodied athletes.”
“The difference is that we have to use tools to bridge the gap of what’s physically possible or not possible because of our disability.”
Photos by REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
International Paralympic Committee (IPC); International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Anand Katakam and Thomas Hogue
Additional work by
Maryanne Murray, Manas Sharma and Minami Funakoshi