Scottish swimmer Andrew Mullen was born with a shortened left leg and has no forearms or hands. This year the 19-year-old swam the 200 meter freestyle event in 34.87 seconds minutes at the Paralympic Games in Rio, with a little help from the sports technology designed to help him race and move.
Competing in five different men's freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke competitions, Mullen has been working with students at Imperial College London to innovate a number of devices to help him train and compete. One of these devices is a specially designed starting block. During the backstroke swimming competition, athletes start off in the water with their feet submerged upon a ledge and their arms and hands reaching up to a set of bars on a poolside block. For paralympic athletes like Mullen, this position poses some technical difficulties.
"Andrew has some grip with his stumps but is not able to reach up to those bars which are quite high on the poolside out of the water," said Dr. Ian Radcliffe, from the department of bioengineering and project manager on the sports innovation challenge.
"He started using these luggage straps to wrap around the block then grip on, but they kept breaking. The students came up with this simple, yet elegant system, using adapted horse riding stirrups, climbing carabiner and reins."
A different group of Imperial students also helped Mullen design a pair of hand paddles to use during training. While most professional swimmers use hand paddles, which they loop their fingers into, for resistance in strength training, Mullen needed an adapted version of this tool. So the students came up with some prototypes that wrapped around the stubs of his arms.
Lastly, to aid in land-based strength training, students developed a special squat rig to accommodate Mullen's shorter left leg. "It's a gimbal rig with a lifting platform and a counter balance, so basically he can put his short left leg onto it then as he squats with the right, it will drop down with him and lift back up—kind of like those assisted dip and pull-up machines in the gym," Radcliffe said.
This past Thursday, Mullen won bronze in the 200 meter freestyle S5 event.