Wheelchair Rugby: First Paralympic Gold And Some Breakthrough Research

Photo from the London 2012 website

The Wheelchair Steelers (Australian Wheelchair Rugby team) recently won the much-coveted gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. The Steelers have been aiming for this gold medal since the 2008 Beijing Paralympic games where they got silver. Over the past 4 years, the coach and team have been working hard to hone their skills, establish training centres and at the same time attract new talent. There has been year-round training and competitions, international ones such as the 2010 WWRC, and locally, there’s the annual National League, and annual State League in Victoria. Organisations such as the Disability Sport & Recreation have also been promoting the sport through programs and social media to encourage more people to try out the game.

On the research side of things, there has been a couple of studies conducted at the RMIT Sports Engineering Lab with support from some of the Australian wheelchair rugby athletes and coach:

1) Customisation of rugby wheelchairs for performance – The idea of performance-based customisation is to maximise the athletes’ comfort and performance by adjusting a few key parameters of the wheelchair design and finding the optimum setup. The main experiments were designed after much research and field tests were done and this was of course coupled with feedback from the athletes and coach. In the end, a platform was developed that allows athletes of the various classifications to systematically customise their individual wheelchair that not only feels good but also helps the athletes perform. For a video on the wheelchair customisation research, check out Channel Ten’s program Scope where it was featured in an episode on Science in Sports.

Ergometer tests with the wheelchair rig

2) Performance & match analysis of wheelchair rugby athletes using inertial sensors – Match analysis of wheelchair rugby was motivated by the fact that the only option available currently is video software analysis, and even though inertial sensors are so commonly used in other able-bodied team sports, it hasn’t been applied in wheelchair sports. The challenge, however, is to use the kinematic data for activity identification, and not just for measuring speeds and accelerations. The final outcome would be to use the likes of smartphones that are embedded with IMUs and are programmable, mount them on the rugby wheelchairs during a competition, and run apps that can determine and track the various activities and performance. Ultimately, this could assist the coach in monitoring the athletes’ performance or even be used for disability classification studies.

Below’s a list of publications that resulted from related work done in the past 3 years. Most of them were presented at the previous ISEA and APCST conferences as well:

Although most of these work was focused on wheelchair rugby, the concepts and platforms developed could potentially be applied to other wheelchair sports for user optimised wheelchair designs and for monitoring activity & performance.

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