Pushing the Boundaries: Product Design Students Create Specialized Gear for Wheelchair Rugby

BY HEIDI HIAASEN


Sara Novak sat at a large, messy worktable with a plastic foot form in her hand. She carefully built up layers of masking tape, following the curve of the heel, to create a shoe-like template. Soon she started crisscrossing fabric and elastic around her own ankle and calf, making note of pressure points and mobility.

Students from the University of Oregon’s Adaptive Design class spent a Saturday in the Innovation Lab – a new product manufacturing workspace tucked under the Burnside Bridge in Portland – working on prototypes for their midterm review. They sketched designs, explored materials, discussed ideas with instructors and created soft goods with industrial sewing machines, surgers and steam pressers.

Novak and her classmates are enrolled in the Department of Product Design through the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. The bachelor of fine arts program allows art, architecture and design students the opportunity to spend a fifth year in Portland, concentrating on the use, invention and production of consumer products, while working with instructors and mentors in the field. Only a few similar programs exist in the country. The UO is working towards launching a one-of-a-kind master’s degree in sports product design this fall. 

 
Sara Novak, UO product design student, consults with Wilson Smith, adjunct instructor for Adaptive Design.

Students in the Department of Product Design take the studio course, “Adaptive Products: Enabling Athletes with Disabilities,” allowing them to work though design challenges for athletes with disabilities. Previous athletes have included a wheelchair fencer, a double-leg amputee snowboarder, and a paralyzed rower. This year’s class focused on creating gear for wheelchair rugby, working closely with members of the Portland Pounders and James Gumbert, head coach of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team.

Wilson Smith, adjunct instructor for the class, UO graduate and long-time Nike designer, lead students through the adaptive design process, pushing them to think of the challenges in a new way, while keeping the end-user experience in mind.

“The Adaptive Design studio gives students a real-world look at the product design process. Students work directly with athletes and realize that sometimes drawings on paper don’t translate when turned into a prototype,” said Smith, who taught the class with Nike design colleagues Bruce Kilgore and Matt Rhodes. “Having access to athletes and receiving their direct, immediate feedback is what leads to a successful final design. It’s really important for a designer to understand and empathize with the end-user.”

Sara Novak, University of Oregon product design student, uses a foot form to build her project pattern for the Adaptive Design studio class in Portland

An industrial sewing machine in the Portland Innovation Lab.

Sara Novak explores connection points in a wheelchair.

Sara Novak's design sketch looks at how to reduce heel spasms for wheelchair rugby players.

Sara Novak, University of Oregon product design student, uses a foot form to build her project pattern for the Adaptive Design studio class in Portland (top). An industrial sewing machine in the Portland Innovation Lab (bottom left). Novak explores connection points in a wheelchair (bottom center). Her design sketch looks at how to reduce heel spasms for wheelchair rugby players (bottom right).

Through the course, Novak looked at how to solve the problem of leg spasticity for some of the athletes. She worked closely with Seth McBride, a member of the Portland Pounders, who will compete for Team USA in Wheelchair Rugby at the Paralympics this summer in Rio.

“When Seth is playing, he gets quivers in his calf and his heels will bounce. The spasms travel up his legs to his hip flexors, impacting his game,” said Novak. “I am working on a shoe that locks his heel down in the chair. By getting more weight down low, it will give him more power and leverage.”

McBride, a UO graduate, enjoyed working with the students, serving as a guide and sounding board. The athletes often create their own makeshift gear, like duct taping garden gloves to their hands for both protection and grip.

“I think the idea of locking the heel down is exactly right. If the heels are locked down, there’s no room for the spasms to get started,” McBride said during Novak’s midterm review. “Anything that keeps the feet and lower legs from shifting around will be a huge value. Our lap is the pocket that the ball sits in. It is important to have a secure ball pocket.”

Pushing the boundaries in the field of sports is the inspiration behind the proposed Sports Product Design master’s program. The new master’s program will develop graduates proficient in using theories and creative problem solving methods as they work through product usability, material study, prototyping, testing and manufacturing.

“This innovative program will combine specialized courses from multiple areas of study including product design, human physiology/biomechanics, journalism, business and management to give designers the necessary tools to successfully excel as sports product innovators,” said Susan Sokolowski, UO associate professor of product design. “We will be located in the heart of Portland, where students will have access through studio critiques, internships and mentorships to work with major sports product design companies, including Nike, Adidas, Columbia, KEEN and Under Armour.”

Through the Adaptive Design studio, McBride got to see what could happen when product design students focus on a particular sport.

“Having the right equipment can be a huge advantage in our sport. It’s nice to get fresh eyes on issues we’ve been tinkering with for a long time,” he said. “Some of the ideas are things I wouldn’t have throught of, but I’m excited to see the outcome and how far they push it.”
 

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More than Redemption: UO Graduate heads to third Paralympics in Rio

 
Seth McBride at wheelchair rugby practice

Seth McBride gestures to his teammates, calling out a play before taking off down the court. Two opponents come at him, trying to stop his motion, but at the last minute he cuts to the side in the effortless way only an elite athlete can accomplish, out of danger and to the goal.

On this Sunday morning in spring, seven athletes and their coach gather in Vancouver, Wash., for practice. They warm up. They run drills. They scrimmage.

CRASH

The sound of metal colliding echoes through the gym. No one seems phased. Instead they yell to each other, passing a volleyball down the court.

CRASH

Through the sound of squealing and grinding aluminum, the players work on the nuance of this game: Wheelchair rugby.

For McBride, a graduate of the University of Oregon, it is the last practice of the season with the Portland Pounders. It’s now time to join up with Team USA Wheelchair Rugby as they prepare for the Paralympics this summer in Rio.

This will be his third Paralympic games. The team brought home the gold medal in 2008 in Bejing. But a devastating loss at the 2012 London games lead to McBride’s leaving the sport.

“People find it funny to call bronze a disappointment,” said McBride. “It was a tough loss. We came into the games the leader and didn’t play our best. I was pretty burned out after six or seven years of year-round rugby.”

McBride discovered wheelchair rugby after starting at the UO.

“I had been injured for two years and working to be independent,” he said. A ski accident at 17 left him quadriplegic, with limited function in his arms and legs. He grew up in Alaska, an avid mountain biker, skier and hiker. “I was looking for something active and came across the highlight video from the 2000 Sydney games. I had never seen an adaptive sport before.”

Wheelchair rugby became a medal sport at the Sydney Paralympics. More than 10,000 people were in the stands and Team USA was in the finals. The game took off in popularity. Invented in Canada in the 1970s, the game was originally known as “murderball,” because of its intense physical nature that often leaves players overturned on the floor. A 2005 documentary by the same name follows the 2004 Paralympics team.

Seth McBride duct tapes garden gloves to his hands before wheelchair rugby practiceSeth McBride duct tapes garden gloves to his hands before wheelchair rugby practice. He worked with UO product design students to design better gear for the sport.

Seth McBride passes the ball during a Portland Pounders wheelchair rugby practiceMcBride, a UO graduate, passes the ball during a Portland Pounders wheelchair rugby practice. He will head to Rio this summer for his third Paralympics with Team USA Wheelchair Rugby.

Also known as quad rugby, the game is open to athletes who have lost function in both upper and lower limbs and the trunk. Players are classified based on their physical ability – .05 for the lowest function level to 3.5 for the highest. McBride is classified at 2.0.

Four players from each team play at a time, and the combined player function total cannot exceed eight points. The game has elements of basketball, rugby and handball, with the ultimate goal of carrying, dribbling and throwing the ball down the court. A point is scored when a player crosses the opponent’s goal line with at least two of his wheels while retaining possession of the ball.

McBride contacted the Portland Pounders, the closest club to Eugene and started training with the team on weekends while earning a double degree in political science and international studies at the UO.

“I loved the feel of the university. It felt very comfortable and I had a really good group of friends who made it easy to have a good time and focus on school,” said McBride.

When it came time to study abroad, he felt limited by his options. His advisor gave him advice that motivates McBride to this day: “Do what you want to do. Figure out your own path.”

McBride took multiple trips to El Salvador, teaching English and studying Spanish. He worked for a local nonprofit that monitored elections, making sure they were free and fair for the citizens.

He moved to Portland after graduation and dedicated himself to wheelchair rugby while working on a master’s degree in writing.

From international travel to daily workouts, McBride was committed to the sport. He met his now wife, Kelly, an occupational therapist who was on staff for Team USA at the time.

After the London games, McBride started to reevaluate his life. He needed a change. He wanted to focus on writing. He wanted to marry Kelly. Together, they dreamed of making a big expedition. And so, at the top of his game, McBride left the sport.

“I knew I couldn’t do those things if I was playing rugby.”

The couple planned a bike trip to South America, leaving Portland in September 2013 and arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina, in August 2014, more than 10 months later. They documented their journey at the website The Long Road South.

“It was such a relief at first – all I had to do was pedal,” McBride said. But soon the reality of the trip set in. Setting up camp, finding food, hauling gear and spending an average of nine hours a day pedaling. Hot, humid days while fighting up hills gave way to icy nights in the middle of nowhere tucked in a small tent under a big sky.

“With rugby, I was used to pushing myself, but it was nothing compared to the physicality of that trip. I learned that you can always do more if you have no other option. There’s always a little more left in the tank.”

As he traveled down the Baja Peninsula, passed through the rolling hills of Ecuador and explored the ruins of Machu Picchu, McBride had a lot of time to think.

“I realized I didn’t want London to be my last memory of rugby. When I got back I immediately started working to make the team,” he said. “Gold is number one, but this is a different team. We’re not looking back at London, but ahead to Rio. That’s where we are focused.”

And when the exhaustion sets in, McBride thinks back to the thousands of miles he pedaled to the end of South America.

“I have more motivation for when I’m feeling tired. I think, ‘You’ve done harder than this. Suck it up,’” McBride said.

“I’m just getting started with U.S. rugby.”