Blade Runners: Paralympic Athletes Compete at High School Track Meet

Blade Runners: Paralympic athletes compete at Southside track meet

When the starting pistol goes off at the McDonald's Relays track and field meet at Southside High School, some of the high school competitors will lunge from the starting blocks alongside world-class Paralympic athletes.

Regas Wood, co-founder of the Never Say Never Foundation, at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France. Photo by Clément Bucco-Lechat under CC Wikimedia Commons.

SHS has teamed with the Never Say Never Foundation, a national non-profit group formed to encourage disabled youth to overcome adversity with a positive attitude. Focusing especially on athletes with limb loss, the foundation's goal is “to push the limits of adaptive sports and show the world anything is possible."

The Never Say Never Foundation is based in Florida. The U.S. Paralympic athletes are coming here from their homes all over the country. What brings them to Fort Smith is the willingness of the Fort Smith Public Schools Athletic Department and the participation of the U.S. Paralympic track team's official prosthetist, who works here at Horton Orthotics and Prosthetics.

Francois Van Der Watt is the specialist in athletic prosthetics who helped to design and fit the “blade" running legs worn by Oscar Pistorius, a South African sprinter and double amputee. Pistorius pushed hard to change the rules to be admitted to the Olympic Games.

On Aug. 4, 2012, at the Summer Olympics in London, Pistorius amazed the world when he ran in the men's 400 meters and 4x400 meters relay races, becoming the first amputee runner to compete at an Olympic Games.

At the 2012 Summer Paralympics, Pistorius won gold medals in the men's 400-meter race and the 4x400-meter relay, setting world records in both events. He also took silver in the 200-meter race, having set a world record in the semifinal.

Van Der Watt, who also is South African, fitted Pistorius with prosthetic devices over more than a decade. As a child, Pistorius was so active he sometimes damaged or broke his conventional prosthetic feet.

Pistorius is a case in point, especially for children with limb loss, Van Der Watt explained. "If you take an analogy, almost every person out there has more than one pair of shoes. At this time, an insurance company allows only one prosthetic. If someone wants to have a shoe for golf, or to play soccer or basketball, then they're out of luck making something work that isn't really designed for that."

Nick Stilwell, who co-founded the Never Say Never Foundation with his friend Regas Woods, drives exactly the same point. Why shouldn't any child who has had one or both legs amputated be able to play a sport?

Holding Battle with the Blades simultaneously with the McDonald's Relays will serve to increase awareness of what is now possible, he said. Stilwell, who lost his lower legs in 2008 as a result of injury in a vehicle accident, met Woods when Woods helped fit Stilwell's first prosthetic legs.

Stilwell was walking again within four months and was inspired by Woods, a full-time orthotics and prosthetic technician and himself a bilateral above-the-knee amputee. He was born with a congenital anomaly -- his legs could not grow properly. He began walking with prostheses at 2.

"Legz," as Woods is nicknamed, is one of the fastest bilateral above-the-knee amputee runners in the world and will compete on the U.S Paralympic track team in Rio de Janeiro where the Olympic Games also will be held.

Stilwell cheerfully admits he's no Olympian, but he enjoys recreational sports such as baseball and basketball -- and he runs -- just as many adults, teens and children do. He also competes in track and field events.

The Never Say Never Foundation offers camps and activities to encourage young people with various physical challenges, especially amputees, and to raise funds to buy athletic blades for kids who could not otherwise afford them.

The two Florida men have teamed with Van Der Watt to produce the Battle with the Blades April 24 at the McDonald's Relays in Fort Smith.

Legz and Stilwell both wear blades for sports. The purpose of the blade design, Van Der Watt explained, is to let a person run naturally -- on their toes. That's why the blades have no heels. They have grip surfaces or even cleats according to the sport for which they are designed.

Van Der Watt's expertise is in designing the fit of the device so the wearer's body is balanced naturally for running.

"We find the ultimate position where the foot needs to land," he explained. "The force (with which the foot hits the ground) is up to 3.5 times more while running than walking."

Each design is highly individual and specific to a person, he said, and involves a bit of trial and error as he and the athlete work together. The process of fitting a conventional walking foot is just as individual, he explained, but a little less complicated.

Paralympic athletes from all over the country choose to come to Horton Orthotics in Fort Smith to have Van Der Watt design and fit their blades.

So far, eight of them -- both men and women -- are coming to Battle with the Blades at the McDonald's Relays.

Local sponsors, including Total Rehabilitation Inc. of Fort Smith's support in providing physical therapy, are donating time and services to support, feed and host the athletes in this event, the first-ever of its kind. Stilwell said he hopes to repeat it annually.

"This is a great message to kids," Fort Smith Public Schools athletic director Jim Rowland said about consenting to pair the Battle with the Blades with the McDonald's Relays.

"We're excited about it," Southside coach Steve Peoples said. "The McDonald's Relays is one of the premier high school track meets in the state. We'll have close to 40 teams, boys and girls. This is going to enrich our relays."

Stilwell and Woods came to Southside to speak to the student body ahead of the meet, Peoples said. "It was really outstanding and very motivating."

Stilwell, a kid at heart, enjoyed it too, he said. "We could hear a little skepticism, maybe, in the audience, when we were telling them our athletes were going to compete with them. So, I asked one guy what he ran and he said the 400 meter. I said, 'Oh, that's great -- we're bringing the world record holder for the 400 meter. You can race against him.' His eyes got big," he said, grinning. "Many of them have never seen an amputee much less run against one -- especially one at the world-class level like these guys are. That is going to push them harder. That is going to make them run faster."