BMW soups up wheelchairs for U.S. Paralympic team

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

As you might expect, the newest vehicle from BMW pushes the edges of the design envelope, but it isn’t powered by gasoline, diesel, electricity or even steam.

It’s powered by a person, specifically persons on the U.S. Paralympic team who will compete in wheelchair racing events in September in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s awesome. It looks unlike anything else out there. I feel like I’m getting into my very own Batmobile when I sit in the chair,” said Tatyana McFadden, a U.S. Paralympian who won three gold medals at London in 2012.

The wheelchair is the latest product from BMW’s role as official mobility partner to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The relationship between BMW and USOC dates to 2010, when the automaker’s engineers and BMW Group DesignWorks began working on a two-person bobsled. Using the new sled at the Sochi Olympic Winter Games in 2014, American athletes ended a 62-year medal drought in the sport as Elana Meyers and Lauryn Williams won silver, while the teams of Aja Evans and Jamie Greubel, and Steve Holcomb and Steve Langton won bronze medals.

BMW also has worked with USA Swimming on a motion-tracking system to analyze underwater performance in the dolphin kick used in starts and turns. It will provide mobility services for the U.S. Golf Federation and U.S. Olympic golfers at the Rio 2016 Games.

“Our partnership with Team USA over the last six years has been a remarkable journey, but the most rewarding part of it all has been the direct collaboration with our athletes,” said Trudy Hardy, BMW of North American vice president of marketing. “Their dedication to their sport and their fans is unprecedented, and as a company dedicated to performance and mobility, this has been a project that felt right at home for us and we’re honored to be part of it.”

Wheelchair racer McFadden said, “One of the coolest parts of the project is that BMW wanted to learn as much as possible from us before diving in, so they completely immersed themselves into our world and allowed us to teach them everything we knew. They focused on three core design areas: aerodynamics, chassis stiffness and a customized fit.”

The chairs incorporate modern aerodynamics, carbon fiber materials, re-engineered chassis and fit customized to the athlete.

“We’ve already gone through two prototype phases and the test sessions have been great so far,” she added. “It’s been a really fun process because we’ve been so involved with giving feedback to the designers and engineers.

“I’ve already been hearing competitors ask questions about the new BMW chair when we’re at competitions.”

McFadden was born with spina bifida and spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage. She is paralyzed from the waist down. In 1994, Deborah McFadden, then commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Dept. of Health, visited the orphanage and brought Tatyana to the U.S., where she competed in various wheelchair sports. At age 15, Tatyana was the youngest member of Team USA in the Paralympics at Athens, where she won two medals. She earned four medals in 2008 at Beijing. She also won a silver medal cross-country skiing in the Paralympic Winter Games at Sochi.

“Working on this project has been a truly rewarding experience for my team and we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last year and half with these athletes and their coaches,” said Brad Cracchiola, associate director of BMW Group DesignWorks.

“From fittings and immersion sessions, to data analysis and real-time testing, we had the unique opportunity to build a fully customized racing device. We’re eager to complete the final product and look forward to watching Team USA compete.”