Paralympic skier Alana Nichols is chasing Sochi gold with carbon and Kevlar

Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols

Few things in sports are more important than the relationship between an athlete and his equipment.

But for adaptive athletes like three-time Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols, who will compete in alpine events for the United States in the 2014 Paralympic Games this March in Sochi, the vast universe of gear enjoyed by the able-bodied has no equivalent. 

Nichols uses a monoski (or sit ski), essentially a molded seat mounted on a frame, attached to a single ski by a footbed. Over the years, monoskis have become lighter, with better shock absorption systems, and allow athletes greater flexibility to manipulate their center of gravity through the positioning of the seat – or bucket, as it’s called – and how the rigs connect to the ski. Still, Nichols says, because the market is unquestionably niche, there is still a decidedly DIY, trial-and-error feel to the whole thing, particularly when it comes to the bucket.

“Most of what has happened in the sit-ski world is basically made in the garage.”

“Most of what has happened in the sit-ski world is basically made in the garage. Made to work,” she says. “We basically took snowboard straps, the toe piece and ankle piece, and screwed them onto our buckets. That’s how we strap in. We’ve basically adapted whatever we could to make it work.”

For able-bodied skiers, the last point of contact between the body and the gear is in the foot inside the boot. With the monoski, the bottom of the bucket becomes that place where the energy generated by the athlete is transferred into action from the ski. Getting it right requires a few things. First, fit. “You need the proper support around the core area without having it too tight. You don’t want to restrict your movement, but you need to have enough,” Nichols says. 

From there, it’s a matter of finding the right behavior. Too rigid and it becomes unsafe, potentially causing injury in a crash. Too flexible and the ski won’t perform. 

That was Nichols’ problem. The soft plastic of her bucket had too much play, giving not just at the top to allow freedom of movement (that’s good) but the bottom as well, making it far less reactive (that’s bad). In search of higher performance, she turned to BMW’s North American division, the same folks responsible for America’s new two-man bobsled design making its Olympic debut in Sochi. They hooked her up with Hans DeBot of deBotech, Inc., literally a Hall-of-Famer in the world of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols

DeBot specializes in carbon fiber and composites (he’s known as “Carbon Hans”), and has a long history of cooperation with Olympic sports, not just in bobsled construction, but working with Team USA’s skeleton sleds as well. He immediately understood the critical role of the bucket for Nichols. “Alana’s bucket is kind of an extension of her body. Whereas the body (of a bobsled) is an extension of the actual bobsled,” he says. “(Bobsled drivers are) putting in more input through the physical steering, where Alana is doing it physically from the movements of her body.”

Nichols’ competition schedule made it impossible for her to visit DeBot’s North Carolina headquarters personally, but she was able to have “multiple lengthy phone calls” with him, and send her existing bucket for comparison. What Nichols felt on the hill was confirmed by DeBot’s testing. “It lets go of too much energy,” he says. “If she puts the input in with her body and that input is lessened or delayed to the ski, then she’s losing that positive reactive energy to control her ski.”

DeBot mixed and matched materials to give Nichols a bucket that would behave the way she wanted.

DeBot scanned Nichols’ bucket digitally, then created a 3D model on the computer (at which point he could return the bucket, so Nichols’ training wouldn’t be disrupted any more than it had to). With a five-axis router, he cut a pattern into a block of tooling board, then used the results to make a mold.

From there, DeBot mixed and matched materials to give Nichols a bucket that would behave the way she wanted. “It is carbon and a Kevlar based. There are different materials in there that are blends, so there may be a 50/50 blend between carbon and kevlar, some places it might be 100 percent of one or the other”, he says, “and some other little added materials that I’ll probably just leave to the world to guess about.”

The direction of the fiber, the placement, and the process itself all lend to the end result, DeBot says. People might look at it and see a simple carbon fiber seat, but they’d be missing a lot of nuance. 

Nichols regrets that she couldn’t make it to North Carolina in person for a fitting – “I shipped my bucket to North Carolina, but ideally I would have shipped myself out there to get a mold,” she says – but it still makes a significant difference. “One of the hardest things is that every disability is like a snowflake. I have a T-11 spinal cord injury and it’s incomplete, but the guy next to me could have the “same” injury and be able to walk. And I can’t move my legs,” says Nichols, who has a masters in kinesiology.

Paralympic gold medalist Alana Nichols

“Off the rack” may often be the only option, but it’s not a good one. Nichols frequently sees athletes incur additional injuries because of poorly fitted equipment, on and off the mountain. 

So having something constructed specifically for her from high-end materials by the go-to guy for carbon fiber gives her a real boost heading into Sochi, assuming she can adjust to the new gear fast enough. For DeBot, the opportunity to work with someone like her is its own reward.

“She took adversity and stared it right back in the face, and is still competing in the Olympics. It’s easier to give up,” he says. “When someone comes to me and says “Hey, I need some help and you’re the expert,” it prides me. That’s how I got started in Olympics.” 

(Images © Team USA)

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Product Review

The all-new 3 Series proves BMW can still build a compelling sport sedan

Seat time in the entry-level BMW 330i ($41,425) and M340i xDrive ($54,995) will test the German automaker’s commitment to driving dynamics, powertrain refinement, and cutting edge technology.
Movies & TV

Sit down and watch some of the best stand-up comedy on Netflix

Feeling a little funny? There are hundreds of hilarious comedy specials out there, and you can't be expected to comb through them all. Lucky for you, we've compiled a list of the best stand-up specials on Netflix.
Product Review

The 2019 Porsche Macan S is a luxurious and quick SUV, but it's no road tripper

The roster of models challenging the Porsche Macan grows annually. The German firm updated its smallest, most affordable SUV with a new engine, more tech features, and subtle design tweaks to keep it looking fresh.

These fitness deals come just in time to work off those holiday calories

Finding the motivation to work out is one thing. Finding space at home to get in a few sets and reps can be an entire challenge in itself. Luckily for you, Walmart and Amazon both have space saving fitness machines and tools on sale right…
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.

Google Fit app finally gets a widget, among other new features

Google Fit hasn't received any new features since its redesign. This week, the company is rolling some new tools; users will be able to add a widget to their Android home screen, adjust the intensity of their workouts, and more.

Amazon is slashing its prices on an array of top blenders

Quality blenders from Vitamix to Ninja and more are on sale at Amazon — just in time to gift them for Christmas. They're great for preparing tasty treats, and as a kitchen staple, they make a great gift for the budding chef in your life.

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…

REI clearance sale extends discounts on Garmin, Fitbit, and GoPro devices

Beyond the things you typically expect to find at REI — like tents, skis, and jackets — there are tons of great deals on quality tech foryour outdoor adventures. From smartwatches to action cameras, here are the best tech deals.
Smart Home

Alexa’s latest skill helps patients manage high blood pressure

People who need some help managing their high blood pressure are getting some help via a new Alexa skill developed in partnership with Omron Healthcare that will work directly with the manufacturer's monitors.

How to use the ECG app, set up irregular rhythm notifications on the Apple Watch

The Apple Watch Series 4 is the best smartwatch iPhone owners can own, and it just got even better with the addition of the ECG app and ability to identify irregular heart rhythms. Here's how to set it all up.

Our favorite fitness trackers make it fun to keep moving

Looking for your first fitness tracker, or an upgrade to the one you're already wearing? There are plenty of the wrist-worn gadgets available. Here are our picks for the best fitness trackers available right now.
Emerging Tech

There’s a new lab-grown meat startup on the block — and it has a secret weapon

Aleph Farms is developing lab-grown steaks with the same flavor, shape, texture, and structure as the real thing using beef cells isolated from living cows. Coming soon to a store near you?