By Kieran Heffernan
Since the start of his playing career, five-time Paralympian Todd Nicholson has watched as huge technological improvements have reshaped the sports he’s played.
Nicholson was introduced to parasport in 1987. At the time, he was a patient at the Royal Ottawa Rehabilitation Center, where he was recovering from a car accident that took place on the night of his high school prom. He became a paraplegic from the accident.
Best known as a sledge hockey player, the Dunrobin-native was part of Canada’s national team for 23 years, including 15 years as its captain, before retiring in 2010.
In speaking to the Sports Pages about what’s changed since his early parasport days, Nicholson explained that the equipment used today is entirely different from when he started.
“My sled was made out of steel and had metal runners on the bottom. We had straight sticks with drywall screws in the end for picks that helped us move around on the ice. We didn’t have actual skate-blades, so you had very little control,” he said.
The screws players attached to their sticks damaged the surface so much that it was difficult to book ice times, Nicholson remembers.
By the time Nicholson retired, sleds had blades, and were made out of hard plastic and aluminum pipes that were much lighter. Sticks and picks are also now custom made.
“Today, if you’re fitted in a proper sled, and as long as you can get your sled to do what you want it to, (the sport is) a very similar speed, and the strength of the shots are very similar to stand-up, able-bodied hockey,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson has also played wheelchair basketball and tennis, where technological changes have improved the safety of play. One way this has happened is through the improvement of sport wheelchairs. They now commonly have a fifth wheel, which was added to the back of the chair to add stability and prevent it from tipping over backwards.
The push to improve parasport equipment has often come from athletes themselves, according to Nicholson.
“At the national and international level, the athletes competing were very competitive,” he said.
“A lot of the technology that has been brought into play has come from athletes themselves reaching out to different companies, whether they’re engineering companies or colleges, or university students looking at different projects.”
Equipment innovations sometimes come from attempts to create more cost-effective options, but most of the best equipment for elite para-athletes are “almost unattainable” for most athletes, Nicholson said.
One example is carbon-fibre racing wheelchairs that can cost six-times as much as a standard racing chair.
Another case is custom para-ice-hockey (the Paralympic name for sledge hockey) sleds.
“The average sled is probably about $1,000 to $2,000. If you’re looking at a custom sled, you’re probably looking more towards $5,000 to $6,000, and it’s unfortunate but that’s something that you would need to compete at that level,” Nicholson said.
High prices mean costs can impede accessibility for many athletes. Canada’s national sport organizations try to combat this by loaning out basic equipment, but for athletes that progress to high levels, the challenge remains.
One way that Nicholson has observed sport accessibility be improved for people with disabilities more successfully is by allowing sports to be inclusive to athletes with and without disabilities.
Many sports are inclusive of all abilities up to the national level.
Nicholson pointed to triathlon as a sport where able-bodied and disabled athletes can easily compete together.
“(In triathlon), you have an able-bodied athlete who might excel in the bike portion compared to disabled athletes, who, when they’re doing it in a racing chair, will make up that time compared to somebody who’s running,” he explained.
Another example is sledge hockey.
“You don’t have to have a disability, and it’s actually strongly encouraged to have it fully inclusive,” said Nicholson, who said that in some smaller communities there may not be enough disabled people for the sport to function, and the participation of able-bodied athletes is needed.
At international competitions, parasport athletes must have a classifiable disability.
As engineers and designers wrestle with issues of safety and cost-effectiveness, and different sports adapt to be fully inclusive, Nicholson said that one message about sport accessibility is important to get across: “Regardless of what happens to an individual, if sport is a passion that you have in your life, there’s absolutely nothing that you cannot do. You just may have to do it a little bit different.”