Paralympics pit crew: Staff of 30 prosthetic, wheelchair technicians at Games

PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of - A prosthetic leg with a lime green running shoe and white ankle sock lay stretched across a worktable in Ottobock's repair centre at the athletes village.

A technician bent over it, painstakingly repairing the leaky valve that helps affix the prosthesis to the athlete's stump.

One table over, a technician was adjusting another prosthetic leg that had been thrown out of alignment. The culprit was the artificial limb's new black suede lace-up shoe with its thick rubber sole.

"The athlete got new shoes," explained Peter Franzel. "For sure then you have a different height of the sole. This affects the whole alignment of the prosthesis, of the knee joint, and we had to do some adjustment on the heel of the prosthesis that compensates for the thicker sole."

"You have to think about many, many things. New shoes for opening ceremonies. We make the alignment so that he can walk properly and straight."

Franzel is the organizing director of the Ottobock athletes village repair service centre — or the pit crew for the Pyeongchang Paralympics.

Thirty technicians from a dozen different countries, including Canada's David Broman, have gathered in Pyeongchang to work for Ottobock, which has had the Paralympic contract since the company first sent four technicians to the Seoul Summer Games in 1988.

From cracked sleds to flat tires, Franzel and his team have seen it all. And unlike able-bodied sport, where body types are more uniform, the shapes and sizes and special needs of Paralympic athletes run the gamut.

"Every person has very individual things that you have to take care of, there's no standard, everything is different," Franzel said. "If it's wheelchair users, it's the setting of the wheelchair, weight more in the front, weight more in the back . . . so many things."

On an afternoon this week, their multi-room repair shop was a beehive of activity. Business is usually booming right after athletes touch down at the Games, since airlines can be unkind to equipment.

"We see quite a bit of damage when they arrive, a wheel is bent or something like this," Franzel said through his thick Austrian accent.

There's a welding room for repairing broken hockey sleds and sit skis. There's a grinding machine, and an infrared oven for moulding plaster stump protectors. There's a stock room lined with dozens of labelled boxes of parts, knee joints and ankle joints and rubber for crutches.

There are two heavy duty sewing machines. Canada's chef de mission Todd Nicholson had his Canadian team jacket adjusted there, shortened in the front to more easily fit in his wheelchair. The jacket sat neatly folded on a shelf for pickup.

The repair shop is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., but there's an emergency after-hours number to call. Ottobock also has smaller units set up at the alpine, biathlon and hockey venues for last-minute — or sometimes even mid-competition — repairs.

"At the Para ice hockey centre, we can even do some welding because the sport is very brutal, they're crashing against each other, and sometimes the frame of the sled is broken," Franzel said. "We even do welding during the game. So if there's a problem, we'll take the player out of the game, do some welding, 10 minutes later we'll send him back into the field of play."

Ottobock was founded in Germany in 1919, right after the First World War, to improve the mobility of people with disabilities through innovative design. It has branches in 56 countries. The company had a staff of over 100 technicians working at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, to meet the demand of the sheer number of athletes that com a summer Games.

Broman, who owns Hager Orthopaedic Clinics, is working his second Paralympics for Ottobock, after manning the repair shop in Whistler, B.C., at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

He marvelled at the diversity of athletes that have walked and wheeled through the Ottobock shop doors.

"We've had athletes from every country you can imagine, it's really amazing," he said. "And every last one is different, you never know what's going to happen. It's applying the prosthetic and orthotic component to the human body, that's the art. . . and it's always a unique and very rewarding challenge."

Broman, a BCIT grad who lives in Kelowna, always takes a peak at results after working with an athlete.

"It's great to see what these amazing athletes can do, and sometimes it puts a smile on your face to know that you helped them a little bit."

Franzel agreed. The staff takes great pride in its work.

"Athletes come in and say 'My wheelchair is not good,' or 'my prosthesis. . .' and you are able to help them so that they can focus on their competition, on their training," he said.

"All those athletes were training for four years to come here, they did their best and a few short days before competition starts, they have a problem with their medical device that may prevent them from competing. And so we are happy to take away the pressure, and they can focus fully on their sport."

Ottobock was also responsible for creating special wheelchair torch holders for the opening ceremonies.


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