August 4, 2017

How prosthetic limbs unlock the world of sport for amputees

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What makes an athlete? Is it how fast they run? How high they jump?… Or is it that determination that burns within them, forcing them onward, to go further, to run faster, to reach higher?

Recently, an American veteran, Kirstie Ennis made a Summit Climb of the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia having already climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, all with an above the knee amputation on her left leg. Closer to home, Jonathan who is missing his left leg and a portion of his back muscle, used in reconstructive surgery, is undertaking a series of endurance swims, and raising money for Legs4Africa. 

Such people break the mold, prove the strength of human spirit in the face of adversity, as well as making me feel more like a kindred of sloth-kind rather than the human race… Race? See what I did there?..

As I slip under the shower, warm water cascading on to my sweaty head, I resolve to find out more about para-athletics, and I know just who to ask.

Cassie Cava is a para-athlete who is part of the Great Britain Triathlon Talent Squad and on her way to being the first woman to represent Great Britain in snowboarding in the Winter Paralympics next March. It’s a testament to her tenacity that, just six months after her amputation, Cassie also cycled from London to Paris to raise money for Legs4Africa… And she was kind enough to give me some time out of training to answer a few questions…

So, Cassie, you seem to do everything, snowboarding, cycling, running… What other sports are accessible to amputees?

“I can’t think of any sport that isn’t accessible with a prosthetic leg. Impact sports are more problematic – I can’t run or snowboard every day because the part of my leg that is taking all of the pressure and my weight just isn’t built for that kind of impact. However, with good fitting sockets and access to the right feet, these can be overcome.”

Are there specialised prosthetic legs that can help with sports?

“Running blade for running, tight fitting sockets for running, snowboarding etc. (those kind of impact sports that can hurt a stump) because a tight, more uncomfortable socket unloads painful parts and heavily loads parts that can take weight. I put pads into my socket for this kind of stuff to load up either side of the tibia, and try to take the pressure off the bony parts – particularly the end of the tibia.” 

I imagine that specialised sports prosthetics manufacture is a very niche industry, is it hard to get hold of such equipment?

“Getting the right equipment is hard – people have to find ways like fundraising to get running blades, but having friends I compete against from other countries, I know how lucky we are with the prosthetic provision we get from the NHS.” 

And what if someone doesn’t have access to a specialised prosthetic?

 “I cycle and snowboard with the foot I walk in and I could do most sports in it. If you can get a high activity foot, you can do most sports in them. Again socket fit is key – if you’ve got a good fitting socket then you can generally make do with any foot most of the time. People adapt – give someone who wants to get involved in sport a basic foot and they will find a way.” 

Are there any considerations when training beyond that of an able-bodied person?

“Strength is key. Glute, core, quads and  hamstring strength are key to a good gait in my opinion and you’ll often see amputees who don’t walk so well down to a lack of strength and control. I have to be very careful with my stump – as soon as there’s a problem I know now and have learnt the hard way that resting it and allowing it to heal is crucial. Some things can be worked through with socket adaptations or slowing down a little, but I have my leg off as much as possible to allow it to rest and recover.” 

Do you have any advice for amputees who might be looking to get into sport?

“A good relationship with your prosthetist is so important, working with someone longer term  makes such a difference as they know how to make sockets that work for you. Changing prosthetists can be a nightmare as you lose that relationship and suddenly your mobility, which we obviously totally depend on, is left in the hands of someone new and it can take a while to get things right.”

Tell me a little more about para-sport as a whole?

“Para-sport is growing hugely in popularity – I think everyone has a story and has generally had so many more challenges to overcome than a comparable able-bodied athlete who has spent their whole life in sport. I’m biased but I think it’s way more fun to watch and follow! There’s a long way to go and I think some people out there view para-sport as not as good as able-bodied sport, but a para-athlete works just as hard as an able-bodied athlete competing at a similar level. None of my friends can keep up with me out cycling!” 

Do you think sport has any extra benefits for people with physical disabilities?

“I’ve made some of my closest friends through sport – you are in an environment surrounded by like minded people with similar goals and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a team sport or you’re in competing individually but in a close knit team! I think this is even more true in para-sport than able-bodied because you are standing on the start line alongside people that have all been through something life changing or have faced huge amounts of adversity in their life, but in that moment, none of that matters. It’s incredibly inspiring being involved in para-sport, seeing how others overcome challenges.” 

What was your biggest help when getting into sport after your amputation?

“Coming into the GB triathlon talent squad a year after losing my leg helped me enormously because there were people there who had overcome 99% of the problems that cropped up for me and had found solutions already. The community that sport can create is probably the best things in the world.” 

Legs4Africa are always thinking about how we can improve ways of helping amputees in Africa to lead more independent and fulfilling lives. Do you think sport could help with this?

“I think giving people the opportunity to get involved in sport and showing people that they can, whether they’ve got a real leg or a prosthetic leg is so important. Getting involved and having a go, no matter what the level, is the first step to a world of fun in sport!”

Thank you Cassie. I and the Legs4Africa team wish you the very best in your future sporting endeavours.

Rise to the challenge and fundraise for Legs4Africa. With your help we’re providing equipment and training so that amputees in West Africa can walk comfortably and safely.


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