Sports Apparel Doesn’t Always Fit Wheelchair Athletes. This Designer Wants to Change That

An elite runner with Olympic genes created a collection just for Paralympians as the capstone project for her master’s degree.

In an effort to make the country’s fastest runners even faster, Team USA’s running uniforms for the 2016 Rio Olympics featured a detail called AeroBlades—small triangles raised off the clothing, which were designed to better channel air flow around the athlete.

However, this feature was not compatible with some of the speediest team members of all: the wheelchair racers. In 2016, Paralympians had also received tights with AeroBlades, but the raised bumps wouldn’t squeeze into the snug fit between their bodies and their racing chairs. Many turned the tights inside out or didn’t wear them at all.

This fact startled Sarah Klecker, who uncovered it while doing research for her master’s project in sports product design at the University of Oregon.

Klecker’s original aim with her master’s project was to create apparel that made Paralympians more aerodynamic. But when she started talking with elite wheelchair athletes—including Yen Hoang, a gold medalist in the 800 meters at the 2019 Parapan Games—it turns out the AeroBlades issue was only one example of the disconcerting disconnect between para-athletes and performance apparel.

“Here you are, one of the best athletes in the world, and you’re given this uniform that is very clearly not designed for you and the intricacies of your sport,” Klecker told Runner’s World.

This became the basis for her capstone project, one that would lead her to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where many of the sport’s top athletes train under coach Adam Bleakney, himself a Paralympic silver medalist. Klecker visited the campus in January, and Bleakney educated her on the history of wheelchair racing and set her up in a chair to get a feel for what athletes call “pushing.”

She also saw the space where elite racer Arielle Rausin, who founded Ingenium Manufacturing, 3D-prints stiff, custom-fit racing gloves that wheelchair racers use to power themselves to victory. (With demand down due to COVID-19, Ingenium has pivoted to producing masks—and thanks to a grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, is sending them to athletes and others with spinal cord injuries around the country.)

Klecker sat down with Susannah Scaroni, a two-time Paralympian who came in seventh in the marathon in Rio in 2016 and qualified for next summer’s Tokyo Games at the 2019 Chicago Marathon.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, I’ve never considered it difficult finding things I need.’ So I wasn’t sure she would find enough for her project,” Scaroni told Runner’s World. “Talking through these things, we realized apparel is actually huge in the sport. Everything needs to be really tight-fitting. We want our racing chair basically to be an extension of us, so we don’t lose any force or power when we’re training.”

Not long after Klecker’s Illinois visit and her midterm presentation to update her progress, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from returning to school from her home in Minnetonka, Minnesota, where she was spending her spring break. But her work continued.

Her professor shipped her patterns and supplies, and she used some of her materials budget for a sewing machine. A corner of her family’s basement transformed into a makeshift studio, where she hoped to remedy the issues faced by Rausin, Hoang, and Scaroni.

Klecker started by designing snug tights using slick fabrics, far easier for sliding into the tight space of a racing chair. She crafted three-quarter-length arm sleeves using fabric laced with Kevlar yarn, which would protect athletes’ inner biceps from sweat and chafing in warmer conditions like those predicted in Tokyo.

There was also a high-neck tank that provided ample coverage. “We’re sitting on our knees,” Scaroni said. “With most of the USA gear we get, there’s a lot of cleavage. That’s not great for pictures.”

Another problem athletes face is precipitation. Typical rain jackets don’t allow the upper-body mobility required to perform optimally. In the famously torrential 2018 Boston Marathon, wheelchair racers wore trash bags to stay dry, Rausin said.

Thanks to a fabric donation from Gore-Tex, Klecker designed and created a weatherproof jacket that was longer in the back than the front, to accommodate wheelchair racers’ positioning. It’s stretchy across the chest, arms, and upper back to allow full range of motion but tight around the waist and arms to avoid bunching in the chair or sleeves catching in wheels. Instead of bulky pockets in the front, she included a small one on the sleeve for keys.

The final piece was racing gloves—a piece as essential to wheelchair athletes as shoes are to standing runners. In fact, Klecker brought principles she’d learned from a footwear design class, plus years of experience working in running specialty stores, to her design.

Working with Rausin on 3D-printing, she flared out the foam to keep racers’ wrists in a more neutral state, a design she hoped would reduce overuse injuries like wrist tendinitis.

Rausin was used to focusing her designs more on performance than injury prevention. At first, she worried that the flare would get stuck on the edge of her wheel. “But I used it and it was great,” she said.

Rausin was also a big fan of the soft “lobster gloves” Klecker crafted to fit underneath them and keep their fingers warm—a task for which Scaroni had previously used “finger socks” snipped off from regular gloves.

“For Sarah to have a professionally sewn thing that we could wear that would protect us and keep us warm and was comfortable—that was really, really cool,” Rausin said.

Finally, although the athletes hadn’t necessarily mentioned it, Klecker also honed in on performance aesthetics. “There’s so much emotion and psychology tied up in putting on a uniform,” she said.

To inform her visuals, Klecker sifted through her mom’s Olympic memorabilia—Janis Klecker won the 1992 Olympic Marathon Trials and competed in the Barcelona Games. Klecker was struck by how proud athletes must feel to wear their country’s insignia. However, because that was imprinted on the chest, it wasn’t visible when wheelchair racers competed. So, she placed it down the back of the tank instead.

She also added high-performance design touches—a logo on the side, an iridescent piece that would flicker in the sun or under stadium lights—to the racing gloves.

To add a fun touch to the traditional red, white, and blue, she included a magenta pop on the gloves and along the sleeves of the jacket, inspired by the magenta Polo jacket athletes wore in the 1992 opening ceremonies.

Once her prototypes were complete, Klecker sent them to Rausin and Scaroni for a virtual fitting. When it became apparent her final presentation would be online, she shipped finished versions back and hired local photographer Layla Alazawy to snap some images for her slides.

Klecker presented her capstone collection—which she called “Velox,” a Latin word meaning “swift”—on a Zoom conference two weeks ago. In addition to rave reviews from Scaroni and Rausin, it was well received by an audience of faculty and apparel company representatives.

With a newly-minted master’s degree, Klecker’s not yet sure where her post-pandemic job hunt will take her. For now, she has a contract job and freelance work she can do remotely. She hopes to return to Portland soon, and eventually find a full-time position in apparel design.

No matter what, she hopes her project raises awareness of the currently non-existent market for adaptive sports apparel. “It’s a space that would make a huge statement in terms of us broadening our cultural perception of what it looks like to be athletes,” she said. “Representation has been such a huge issue across the board, whether we’re talking about race or gender or ability level. Being able to see yourself reflected in product is important and encouraging.”

If any companies do pick up on her efforts, they’d find a willing audience: “A raincoat that has that flex—it’s seriously amazing,” Rausin said. “Suz and I told her multiple times, ‘We will purchase this if you want to make them.’”

Cindy Kuzma, Contributing Writer Runner’s World
Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013.

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