When it comes to the sports wheelchair, in any chair discipline, the stakes are high. The equipment and the athlete have to perform as one. Acting as the very extension of the athletic frame, the chair has its work cut out – levering and lurching while remaining rooted in fencing, protecting and propelling in court ball sports, staying precise to take aim on the throwing field or being able to speed along a track.
Bridgend-based RMA Sport have woken up to this new dawn in sports equipment. Through the company’s efforts, the South Wales town is rapidly racing into pole position as the world capital of sports wheelchairs, and by happy coincidence, the first Wheelchair Fencing World Cup ever to be held in the UK will be a few miles down the road in Cardiff, in January 2024.
RMA Sport declares that their firm is “not reinventing the wheel.” Yet, RMA Sport’s focus on designing directly for the sport rather than on simply adjusting a model from existing stock is spinning into a kind of wheelchair revolution.
There is no typical customer. Take Aaron Phipps MBE, a double amputee since the age of fifteen, who points out that he’s had to “lose thirty-percent of his body to realise 100% of his potential”. Phipps plays ‘murderball’ – wheelchair rugby – like a full-on combat sport, and who can reach to his trophy cabinet and show his gold medal from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
RMA Sport’s sister company, Roma Medical, has been in the mobility and therapeutic game for over twenty years; longer if you factor in that the co-owners, Managing Director Simon Dalton and Director John Pitt both worked for Simon’s dad, who was also involved in wheelchair manufacture. That changed when John’s daughter asked him to weld a chair for a wheelchair rugby-playing friend. John obliged and the production of day-chairs in healthcare spiralled into something else. Immediately noting the rugby chair could be improved upon, he – along with Simon – set out to produce a better model. Simon says “We probably started with the hardest chair possible. Rugby by its nature is crash-bang and they have to be very, very strong chairs.”
In July 2012, with the London Paralympics just around the corner, RMA Sport was invited to attend a Great Britain wheelchair rugby team training session. During this visit, they spoke with the athletes about how their chairs were performing, asking the same question of everyone: “If it were possible, would you alter anything about your current chair?” One hundred percent responded that – yes, they would make changes, even though many of the chairs in question were new, having only been in use for a couple of months.
Manufacturing intelligence sent RMA Sport’s brain cells shifting up several gears. Using high-end aircraft-grade materials that are lightweight but can survive flying through the air, RMA Sport’s vision started to take flight, seeing whether there was a better, more accurate way to measure for such a critical piece of equipment where a couple of millimetres can make a whole world of difference.
“Our strength is that we are small enough to care but big enough to turn ideas into reality and make and create what is beneficial”, says Steve Hughes, Commercial Director at RMA. “We started by attempting to understand every aspect of the wheelchair athlete’s condition. And we did that by listening and outlining every conceivable requirement.”
Paying attention was the data-collection that paid off and became a uniquely trademarked application of engineering to wheelchair sport. “What we were looking at was that everyone, whether for active use to increase independence or for recreational use wheelchairs, was getting measured with a tape measure: hip-to-hip. But that’s where human error comes into the equation. We devised the Contour Body Mapping System where the customer comes to Bridgend to be fitted in-person by both human and computer, and to get a feel for the chair.”
Murderball maestro Aaron says his prayers were answered when RMA Sport’s staff came through the door at that GB team training session. Until this point, Aaron, and athletes like him, had been filling out a prescription form with their body measurements and then sending it off to firms in New Zealand or the USA. When their chairs came back less than perfect, Aaron sighs that it was a case of just having to suck it up until they could save several thousand pounds for another.
“RMA Sport gets what we’re after and they revolutionised the design and manufacture process so we could have what we wanted and needed. Wheelchair rugby is a full-contact sport and we’re allowed to smash each other up. As a high points player, I’m the bully on the court. Being a big guy, my job is to intimidate and dominate my opponents’ chairs, trying to make it so they can’t move. Or I manoeuvre to get them upside down on their face so it’s easier for my team to score.”
Aaron adds that the Contour Body Mapping System enables him to co-design his wheelchairs “from the ground up” – crucial as an amputee player in a sport previously for quad- and tetraplegic players where wheelchair usage – and therefore specification – is vastly different. The hi-tec individual spec means that propulsion is as much prioritised as posture, comfort is as important as energy conservation. While RMA Sport claims not to be re-inventing the wheel, they are nonetheless repurposing it for competitive edge.
RMA Sport also has the ambition of giving fencers the best possible equipment. Steve has been consulting with British Fencing and sitting fencers to develop static equipment that is robust, with the flexibility to put an athlete at the top of their game when it comes to litheness and reach, leverage and strength. Their eye is trained on every kind of need from entry-level club fencing to Paralympic high-performance.
The fencing chair in development has a doubly-reinforced axle to minimise wear and tear from the impact of torsion, as well as a reversible grab-handle suitable for both left and right-handed fencers. The sideguard is made out of clear polypropylene to conform to international regulations where athletes must not lift themselves from the chair when attacking or defending.
It is a much-welcomed R&D development in the wheelchair fencing space. Steve reports how he’s been working with Welsh athlete and GB Fencing Paralympian, Gemma Collis whose current chair he likens to ‘Trigger’s Broom’.
Steve laughs: “Gemma’s chair is older than she is. It’s over thirty years-old and she’s been repairing that chair constantly. We are working with her as an elite athlete to understand what she wants to achieve in terms of her own growth in competitive sport and how she can draw out the extra percentage from the product she is utilising. We have adapted the Contour Body Mapping System for fencing – it’s such a fast and fluid discipline; blink and you miss it.”
Having already demonstrated a first prototype at the Wheelchair Fencing Nationals in Swansea, part of Disability Sport Wales’ Para Sport Festival, a modified Mark-II version has been wheeled out at November’s Welsh Open. Feedback on how fencers like to thrust their swords while deploying arm and torso has led to fine-tuning how the final product will function. Despite the wheelchair being anchored to a fixed base, it will be created to advance the mobility of an athlete switching between attack and defence.
Wales as a nation has certainly racked up a list of technological innovations. introduced the equals sign, iron smelting in industry, the fuel cell in hydrogen-powered batteries, next-day delivery in retail and aptly the ‘spare wheel’ carried in cars – as well as the ball bearing, allowing wheels to move without friction.
British Fencing’s Inclusion Officer, Rick Rodgers, notes that “the legacy of modernising para-fencing equipment started with a baton first held aloft by the original creator of wheelchair fencing, Professor Sir Ludwig Guttman. Now we are seeing the innovation taking flight into the future with a Welsh company in the host country to the first UK-based Wheelchair Fencing World Cup.”
Simon, John and Steve report that they are looking at 21st century modifications to production processes – experimenting with magnesium in weight alleviation, for example. Aaron will tell you of how only a five percent increment in performance gains can contribute to the difference from a Paralympic fifth place (where the GB Wheelchair Rugby Team finished in 2012) to their 2020 Paralympic Gold. “When athletes are in completely bespoke chairs, they are generally going to perform better. That means more medals.”
It’s not just about masterminding how to get the hardware. RMA Sport will tell you how there were tears in everyone’s eyes when another athlete came in for a final chair fitting. Prior to the appointment, a rugby player, who had broken his neck, had never managed to pick up the ball from the floor with his left hand. But the tailor-made chair, that had been mapped out to his exact dimensions, allowed him to do just that. A dream, held back by mere millimetres, had suddenly become reality.
Steve identifies such times as the true wow factor of the nature of the business. John adds simply: “When you see the end user, when you see somebody performing to a different level, that’s a reward in itself for us. That’s fantastic.”
RMA Sport’s athlete-centred approach chimes seamlessly with British Fencing, and their Bridgend-based facility does just that: it bridges, it connects. This company is managing the journey between a world-class Wales to a small yet powerful global presence, in a novel kind of ‘transformative empathy engineering’ which – whether in Welsh or English – translates as the sports wheelchair propelling forwards in exactly the right direction.
Siân Hughes Pollitt
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