Training and tech: This is what it takes to become a Paralympian

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Often wondered what goes into training to become a professional amputee athlete?

We had the opportunity to catch up with Brett Robinson, the coach of Australian amputee long-jumper Sarah Walsh to find out what technology and training really goes into becoming an elite athlete.

Sarah made her debut competing in the long jump at the 2016 Rio games. She trains six days a week and, as a below the knee amputee, running blade technology is an integral part of her training.

Brett has been supporting and giving advice to Sarah on and off for six years and has been her full-time coach for the last three.

As a professional athlete, Sarah trains full time. Each day is different – some are track and strength sessions, and others are a mixture of Pilates-style exercises, plyometrics (jump training) and pool exercises.

"Training involves bouncing and jumping, so that Sarah gets a good feel for the spring and the return the blade gives her for the track. We also do a lot of right-side exercises to strengthen the muscles and ligaments around her amputation", explains Brett.

Challenges with prosthetics

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There are some unique challenges around prosthetics, such as the type of blade and how it aligns with the socket. There's a lot of research before a blade is fitted, so that it works with the specific height and weight of the athlete.

"Sarah has a few prosthetics: she has a specially designed day leg for general use, instead of the blade, and also a water leg for the beach, as she surfs. The water leg has a protective casing around the components to prevent sand and water damaging the smaller pieces. There are challenges with the structure of her knee on the right side, as she’s missing some of the ligaments, and we have to be careful around the structure because it’s not fully functional", says Brett.

Using tech the right way

Running blades are made from carbon fibre and there are many types, based on the weight and power of the athlete. The running blades Sarah uses can affect her performance, so it's important she has the right one and it's checked on a regular basis. This involves testing compressive forces and biomechanics.

"We use video to review and analyse Sarah's biomechanics. Sometimes we use apps called Dartfish or CoachMyVideo which have some fantastic functions to measure stride length, ground contact time, hip displacement and parabolic curves in the long jump.

"It's portable, and we can film so many different aspects and review them straightaway. I can send things through to Sarah, we can slow frame it, and so on. We get a huge amount of benefit from using the iPhone and iPad in training.

"People do have misconceptions about Paralympic athletes. They tend to think they are inspiring only because of the adversity they've overcome. While that is inspiring, the reality is that they're also elite athletes who train as much and make the same sacrifices and choices as able-bodied athletes", says Brett.

Taking inspiration

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While Brett doesn't compete professionally any more, he was an athlete and is still training hard on a regular basis. He often implements the things he learns through coaching into his own program.

"Sarah never lets her disability impede her potential, which is very inspiring. When I know that she needs to change something, I give her a new task, and she's always willing to work with me to figure out how it can be achieved.

"But Sarah is not just a very committed and inspirational athlete, she's an inspirational human with a massive heart. She's only a young woman, just 18, but she's involved in several charities around helping other people with disabilities. She has also designed her own T-shirt to raise money for Limbs 4 Life, which helped her when she was growing up.

"If I had to describe Sarah, I would say she's a very kind, calm and beautiful soul", says Brett.

Sarah is an ambassador for nib foundation partner Limbs 4 Life, an organisation that provides support for amputees, their families, caregivers and healthcare providers.

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