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22nd September 2016

Making the boat go faster

Earlier this month we watched in awe as Paralympians gathered in Rio to show the world what strength, determination and dedication look like in their purest form. We celebrated disability by focusing on ability.

In particular, Great Britain’s Paralympics rowing team blew any misconceptions about disability out of the water when they made history by taking three golds and a bronze on the finals day of the Paralympic Games regatta.

One of the team’s star rowers was Rachel Morris (pictured in the header photo of this article), who lost both her legs to complex regional pain syndrome as a young adult. In Rio she overcame a slow start to win a gold medal in the arms-shoulders women’s single scull, just three years after transferring from hand-cycling.

Two other rowers who shone in Rio are super-duo Laurence Whiteley and Lauren Rowles (pictured below). They won their heat in a world best time to win gold in the trunk-arms mixed double scull. In 2006 Whiteley was diagnosed with cancer and had to have surgery on his leg. Wanting to get fit again, he returned to sport after a year of physiotherapy; he tried swimming first but later turned to rowing. Former wheelchair racer Rowles developed a condition involving inflammation of the spinal cord called transverse myelitis at the age of 13 which left her with no feeling below her chest.

Besides the mobility aides that we can see, like wheelchairs and leg braces, there are a number of ways in which medtech supports these athletes behind the scenes. “There is the ability to monitor many aspects of a rower’s training, recovery and progression ‒ however the key is ensuring you are spending the precious time and money available focusing on areas that will ‘make the boat go faster’,” British Rowing’s Paralympic Team Leader Louise Kingsley explains to This Is Medtech.

One of the most useful devices simultaneously delivers adjustable cold therapy and intermittent compression, making it easy to apply the two most difficult-to-manage aspects of the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) regime.

Another invaluable piece of technology is an intelligent electrical muscle stimulation device that helps improve performance and recovery by automatically personalising the stimulation settings depending on the physiology of the user.

“Our physiologist also uses medtech to monitor everything from lactates during training sessions to sleep profiles of individuals in order to suggest ways to improve quality of sleep/recovery,” says Louise.

Despite the increasingly advanced technologies available to athletes these days, some gaps still need to be filled. “There are definitely gains to be made in terms of looking at recovery processes for rowers,” Louise points out. “Rowers train for many hours in a week and ensuring they are recovering optimally between sessions is an important aspect of high performance.”

Choosing which devices are right for the athletes can also be challenging. “Firstly you need to ensure that you focus on medtech that is appropriate for your needs rather than ‘nice to have’ and secondly you have to consider the cost. The availability of enough units to enable a full squad of rowers to use the technology can be prohibitive,” Louise notes.

Nevertheless, it appears that GB’s Paralympic rowing team is managing these challenges with aplomb.

We can’t wait to see what new medical gadgets and technology will be supporting the Paralympic athletes at Tokyo 2020!

To learn more about the GB para-rowing squad, visit British Rowing’s biography page.

Photo credit: Simon Way