After placing eighth in the 200-meter sprint kayak at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Kelly Allen was eager to elevate her performance. She possesses the upper-body strength required to paddle swiftly, but has no left leg function to push off the foot board and achieve maximum power on her stroke. The Kingsford native’s left femur, patella and fibula have been missing since birth and her hip is underdeveloped. NMU Professor Sarah Clarke challenged students in her advanced mechanical kinesiology course to work with Allen and her longtime prosthetist Lynn Vanwelsenaers to design a custom prosthetic device that would allow the athlete to harness energy from her left side. Allen was on campus April 16-17 for fittings and related assessments in and out of the PEIF pool.
“The student design team had to figure out through research and talking to Kelly and Lynn what adaptive equipment they could attach to the prosthetic fitted for Kelly’s limb that would help her get more power in the kayak,” Clarke said. “Should it be a long peg leg or one segment? Should it have knee flexion? Lynn built and molded it, but the students came up with the design. We also had an assessment team that coordinated the logistics of Kelly’s campus visit and testing. It can be a challenge to work in groups, but the students were very motivated and enjoy problem-based learning.”
First-year master’s student Ian Torchia chaired the design team. The NCAA Men’s Nordic Skier of the Year and 20K men’s freestyle champion has attended training camps with Paralympian skiers. He said their courage inspires him to work harder and makes him appreciate how fortunate he is to be an able-bodied athlete. Torchia was eager to tackle Allen’s case.
“This is definitely the coolest thing I’ve done at NMU so far,” he said. “We’re able to apply what we learned now, not after graduation. We’re also learning the difference between having knowledge and using it in practical situations. It’s a lot harder than memorizing facts. We proposed a couple early ideas, but Kelly said they wouldn’t work so we had to adapt and come up with a new design. This project is focused on creating something that could potentially help Kelly win gold. It’s not hard to do the work if you have that as motivation.”
“One of my career goals is to work with elite athletes and this class gave me that opportunity while still in college,” said design team scribe Olivia Perrin. “Kelly’s finishing eighth in the world without a functional left limb, so it’s humbling to think we might play even a small part in helping her place higher. When she goes overseas, she sees competitors from other countries with adaptive equipment in their boats and realizes the U.S. is a little behind. A challenge for us was that, because she uses a different boat when she competes overseas, all the equipment we designed has to be detachable.”
Another challenge was trying to design a custom prosthetic remotely. Allen formerly attended NMU and worked with U.S. Olympic Training Site weightlifting coaches to improve her strength and conditioning. She now lives and trains full time in Oklahoma. After her arrival on campus and the first fittings of her new prosthetic, the problem-solving continued with last-minute design adjustments right up until Allen entered a kayak for a trial run
“With our test today, I’m extremely impressed with what the students were able to put together with just a few phone calls or Skype sessions and pictures,” said Allen after paddling in the PEIF pool. “It’s great Northern is able to provide this elite research experience. There are things Lynn and I can tweak, but I’m happy with the results so far. My left side is picking up some slack that it normally doesn’t and there’s some relief on my right side. I’ve been searching for years for a something that would help bring me to the next level. I can’t wait to get home and test it in my boat.”
Ashley Vansumeren chaired the student assessment team, which analyzed previous research to develop testing protocols revolving around variables that could indicate improvement in Allen’s performance.
“Our last couple of meetings were here at the pool doing pilot testing to make sure everything would run smoothly when Kelly got here,” Vansumeren said. “We have cameras on each side to capture her entry and exit times with the paddle, as well as the transition time between strokes. We also tested her propulsion force with each stroke. Beyond the pool, we measured the range of motion with her limbs and did some strength testing.”
Allen said there won’t be time to fine-tune the prosthetic and adequately train with it before the World Cup event in Hungary next month. She hopes it will be ready to use by the World Championships at the end of the summer.
Clarke’s class also provided biomechanical support for two other elite athletes: a former U.S. Olympic Training Site weightlifter with recurring overuse injuries; and an ultra runner who plans to complete the Order of Hrmithurs, which includes three winter ultra races.