Race car technology powers our Paralympic basketballers

Australian Institute of Sport
  • Video News Release here: Interviews with Australian Rollers wheelchair basketball representative Tom O’Neill-Thorne and AIS Senior Engineer Matt Crawford.
  • AIS Engineering is using Formula 1 race car technology to put Australia’s wheelchair basketballers in the driver’s seat for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

    In partnership with Paralympics Australia and Basketball Australia, AIS engineers are providing three squad members of the Australia men’s Paralympic basketball wheelchair team, the Rollers, with customised carbon-fibre seats to increase their speed, agility and support.

    It is an evolution of the work the AIS and Paralympics Australia have done over many years with wheelchair athletes such as tennis superstar Dylan Alcott. One of the basketballers to benefit, Tom O’Neill-Thorne, says it will be a “game-changer” for the sport.

    AIS senior engineer Matt Crawford has a background in motorsport and said the custom seats, perfectly moulded to an individual player’s body-shape, are made from the same material used in the bodies of Formula 1 race cars.

    “We use the same technology that you’ll find in a Formula 1 car, an America’s Cup boat or aerospace,” Crawford says. “We use prepreg carbon-fibre, so it has the highest strength-to-weight ratio and the seats tend to be very light. When the athlete turns, the chair turns, in many ways, the chair becomes more part of the athlete.

    “What we’re trying to do is give the athlete more bang-for-buck when they push the chair, so that’s better performance, better agility and better support.”

    Rollers players O’Neill-Thorne, Jannik Blair and Tristan Knowles are the first basketballers to benefit from the new technology and the trio have given the sleek new seats a very humble nickname.

    “We’ve got a nickname, it’s called The Bucket, because you’re basically sitting inside a really expensive, tailor-made bucket seat of carbon fibre. Honestly, it’s probably going to change the game for the next five to 10 years,” O’Neill-Thorne said. “For our sport, which is so fast-reaction speed, quick turns, quick movements, to be able to get even point-zero of a second faster at something would be game-changing for everyone.

    “It’s pretty crazy to think I’m using the same material that race car drivers are driving around in, so hopefully it makes me a little bit faster … and I look good doing it,” he added, laughing.

    The AIS and Paralympics Australia have been working in partnership on Paralympic seating projects since 2014 as part of the AIS Technology group’s push to be on the cutting-edge of sport technology advancement.

    “Our team here at the AIS and Paralympics Australia, we punch above our weight in terms of how we can develop that equipment,” Crawford says. “It really takes a multi-disciplinary approach for these projects to be successful, so we work very closely with Paralympics Australia, the athletes and specialists in areas such as prosthetics, orthotics, physiotherapy and medicine. A Paralympic athlete’s impairment is rarely the same, so we cast a wide net to ensure we get the best advice from the right experts.”

    O’Neill-Thorne grew up playing basketball in Darwin using a borrowed chair that was older than him.

    “It will be really interesting to see where it goes from here, it wouldn’t surprise me to see eight to 10 players on each team around the world have one of these chairs,” O’Neill-Thorne says.

    “To see the AIS being so cutting-edge, world-class and the leaders in new chair design, I think Australia is set up so well for the Tokyo Paralympics.”

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