Cross-country and biathlon skiers competing in the 2014 Winter Paralympics may have an advantage over skiers who have competed in previous games. This time around, some of them might be using custom-optimized ski sledges, made by a consortium including Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials.
The process for creating the new sledges begins with an athlete having markers attached to various points on their body. They then sit in a standard sledge, and go through their racing motions. Cameras capture the movement of the markers, while sensors in the ski poles measure how the athlete’s power is transmitted as they push off.
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That data is fed into a program that creates a bio-mechanical model of the skier, which is used to establish the basic seating design of the custom sledge. The athlete is also scanned in three dimensions as they ski, the results of which are used to fine-tune the design. Additionally, simulation software is used to determine where material can be removed from the sledge, in order to lessen its weight without compromising its structural integrity.
The gliding surface of the attached skis is custom-ground, as each athlete’s weight distribution is unique, causing maximum pressure to be concentrated in different areas of the skis. Special low-friction coatings have also been developed, reportedly allowing the skis to move across the snow as effortlessly as possible.
Ultimately, athletes should end up with a sledge that’s designed around the distinctive nature of their disability, and that’s light and fast to boot.