What is different in a sport wheelchair?

A sport wheelchair is very different than a standard wheelchair. To facilitate a sport activity for their users, those special wheelchairs have:

  • a shorter seat, without headrest or amrest to allow ease of movement
  • adapted tires
  • inclined wheels
  • a reinforced frame
  • a reclining seat

In the past years, numerous sports have adapted to integrate players and professional athletes in a wheelchair. Sports wheelchairs have been specifically tailored to fit their needs.

Which sports can you do in a wheelchair?

There is plenty of sports that can be adapted for wheelchair users:

  • athletics, hiking (all-terrain wheelchair)
  • table tennis, badminton, tennis,
  • bowling,
  • dancing,
  • boxing,
  • football, rugby, basketball,
  • weightlifting,
  • ski,
  • archery, sport shooting,
  • sailing,
  • etc.

Just as football, tennis and basketball players wear different shoes on the playing field, para athletes do likewise in wheelchair sports.

Never would you find a para athlete use a racing chair to play a game of wheelchair basketball. The wheelchairs used in para sports are suited to fit athletes’ bodies and their impairments, depending on their sport, and allow them to maximise their performances.

The USA’s wheelchair racer Josh George is familiar with the intricate details about chairs. He played wheelchair basketball but had to decide between that or athletics at his first Paralympic Games in Beijing 2008; and he chose athletics. He explains the main differences between the wheelchairs and how they fit perfectly the needs of the athletes.

The muscles George used to push a wheelchair in basketball were completely different than those for a racing chair. Part of that is because of the difference sizes in the push rims.

"In a basketball chair, it’s all more explosive. So you need a much stronger back in basketball because you’re constantly stopping and changing directions, and that uses a lot of pulling muscles, whereas wheelchair racing is entirely pushing muscles," George Said.

In a basketball chair, athletes sit higher than on a racing chair, thus are using a bigger push rim that can range from 60-68cm in diameter, compared to 35-39cm in other sports. This means an athletes’ stroke length is a lot shorter in wheelchair basketball and require quicker hands and explosive power to stop and change directions. Meanwhile, everything into a racing wheelchair is designed for straight ahead speed, and athletes have to manage their energy efficiency depending on the distance they are racing.

“It is not super nimble like a basketball or tennis chair. You can’t stop [a racing chair] very easily. Once it’s rolling, you can’t stop it brutally like a basketball chair. If you race a basketball chair on the track, you would get crushed. Nowhere near as fast as a racing chair. And vice versa. If you took a racing chair on the basketball court you wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

The research of stability

In wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair racing, the seats vary depending on the athletes’ classification.

In wheelchair basketball, low-point athletes who have the least function in their lower body have more a “bucket seat” that are more stable and have higher backrests compared to high-pointers. High-pointers may also have a sixth wheel in the back that would allow them to lean as far back without flipping over, whereas low pointers would typically have five wheels, one in the back opposed to two.

Stability for athletes of different classes in racing chairs is seen more in camber, which is the angle of the two main wheels. The wider the wheelbase, the better the turn and stability.

In basketball and tennis, chairs have 20 degrees of camber, which means the wheel is bent 20 degrees to the ground and allows the chair to turn really fast.

Racing chairs on the other hand have 10-15 degrees of camber, mostly for lateral stability, especially for the turns.

Extra equipment?

An added feature are the gloves that the athletes use to push. In this way, they are not actually grabbing the push rim with their bare hands. The gloves allow them to put far greater power and have greater efficiency.

Pushing repeatedly a wheelchair without gloves can cause very uncomfortable hand injuries because of the frictions.

Contact and non-contact sports: any difference?

Chair-to-chair contact is inevitable in basketball and rugby. Thus, athletes’ chairs must be designed to withstand collisions. In wheelchair rugby, there are offensive and defensive chairs. Offensive chairs are set up for speed and mobility and contain a front bumper and wings to prevent other wheelchairs from hooking it. Defensive wheelchairs contain bumpers set up to hook and hold other players.

In wheelchair basketball, a rounded ring is in front to prevent chairs front getting stuck when they make contact.

However, wheelchair tennis does not have a specific feature to protect against contact, but rather longer, extended wheels in the front that would allow athlete to reach as far out to return shots.

And once an athlete finds a chair that they are comfortable with, they stick with it for all competitions in their sport. Chairs are slightly different and unique based on the player’s individual disability. It is also a matter of comfort, as the wheelchair has to feel as much as a part of their body as possible.

Wheelchairs became more than a means to get around, but marvels of techology, to help improve the performances of athletes with disabilities.

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