Alexa Halko competes in the women's 100m dash 51/52/34 for the 2016 U.S. Paralympics Trials in Track and Field at Irwin Belk Complex at Johnson C. Smith University on July 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
When wheelchair racing was first introduced at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 1964, athletes sped down the track in chairs that looked like they came from a hospital.
Since that time, racing wheelchairs have evolved greatly, with designs changing to create faster, more aerodynamic wheelchairs. Now, racing wheelchairs are obviously very different from day-to-day ones, featuring two large wheels on the sides and one smaller one in the front.
What’s less obvious are the sometimes tiny differences from chair to chair that make each one unique.
“Everyone’s body is very different,” said Paralympian Alexa Halko. “Everybody has their own specifications.”
Halko is a wheelchair racer who took home three medals from the 2016 Paralympic Games and is currently training for the Tokyo Games next year. She has cerebral palsy, making her classification T34, one of the seven that are eligible for wheelchair racing (the others are T32-33 and T51-54). While Halko doesn’t use a wheelchair in her everyday life, she’s been using one for racing since she started competing at age 7.
According to Halko, the chair she uses for racing has to be made just for her. A few months ago, Halko bought a new wheelchair, one that was customized to fit her body — especially her legs, which are tucked under her during races.
“I have feeling in my legs, so when my chair position is a certain way, it will make my legs fall asleep faster,” she said. “Or it’ll mess with how long I can stay in the chair.”
Every elite racer’s wheelchair is customized to fit their body; a wheelchair that works for one racer would not fit another.
The World Para Athletics rulebook leaves room for this type of customization. While the guidelines stipulate that all racing wheelchairs must have two rear wheels and one front wheel, a braking system and hand-operated steering, no mechanical devices that store energy or make the wheelchair more aerodynamic, and have frames and wheels within certain size restrictions, there are no specifications for how the wheelchair is constructed or what materials are used. The rules only state that, “The Frame structure must be made of a material which provides sufficient stability and stiffness for safety purposes.”
Still, when racers choose their customized wheelchairs, many choose chairs that are made of one of two materials.
“Mine’s made of aluminum,” Halko said. “Some of the chairs are made out of carbon fiber as well. It kind of just depends on who’s racing it.”
It could also depend on whether an athlete has a wheelchair sponsor, according to Halko.
Four-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, meanwhile, goes for carbon fiber. She debuted a brand new chair designed by BMW at the 2016 Paralympic Games. Rather than using aluminum, the manufacturers of her chair opted for the stiffer carbon fiber material, and took a 3-D image of McFadden’s body so they could make a chair that she could fit in securely.
For McFadden, the chair was a great success, helping her add four gold medals to her already large collection. Regardless of what it’s made of, for wheelchair racers, finding a light, aerodynamic chair is key.
“Especially in the sprints, you just wanna be as light as possible,” she said in 2017. “You want it to be as aerodynamic as well.”
With the new technology, chairs can now weigh less than 20 pounds and can go over 20 miles per hour.
As far as wheels go, Halko says those are usually carbon fiber.
“When you get to a certain level, it’s usually best to have the carbon fiber wheels,” she said. “It’s just faster and more aerodynamic.”
Some racers use full disc wheels that are completely carbon, but Halko’s wheels have spokes. Beyond the chair, she wears a standard bicycle helmet along with 3-D printed gloves that have rubber lining for a better grip.
Halko hopes to get a gold medal in the 100-meter and the 800-meter at the Games. Whatever she chooses to race in, it will be something that fits her like a glove and maximizes her speed. After all, that’s what hooked Halko when she first sat in a racing wheelchair.
“It was definitely different,” she said. “But the thing for me that was really exciting was that I could go fast.”