Winning gold at the Paralympic Games – a dream shared by many paralympic athletes. But how can you turn that dream into a reality? Movement scientist Riemer Vegter plays his part in this, ensuring that athletes and wheelchairs are as compatible as possible. Through the WheelPower project, the biggest paralympic wheelchair sports are joining forces to share real-world and scientific knowledge. Vegter: ‘You learn the most about human movement when you conduct research in situations in which the body no longer functions the way it usually does.’
Text: Nienke Oostra, Communication UG / Photos: Henk Veenstra
Riemer Vegter is an assistant professor of Human Movement Sciences at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). In this role, he also coordinates the paralympic research lab, where he and colleagues and students test and measure the biomechanics and physiology of wheelchair athletes. While still a student of Human Movement Sciences, Vegter did research on walking with a prosthesis in a Virtual Reality lab. ‘There were so many things to measure and new things to discover – it was incredibly exciting.’ Later on, when he started researching wheelchair use, he was able to apply the things he was good at: biomechanics, measurements, maths, and movement. This is how he rolled into the job, he jokes.
One thing that Vegter finds incredibly fascinating is looking at what movement means to people. Where he initially tended to look at the body from a functional perspective, he is now also becoming increasingly mindful of the human dimension. ‘How does losing your leg actually affect you? Before, I never really stopped to think about the fact that you can also miss your leg, just like you can miss a partner.’ As time went on, Vegter explains, he increasingly came to understand what it is like to have a disability and what it does to people.
In the paralympic research lab, researchers are working on optimizing movement for wheelchair athletes. Vegter explains that using a wheelchair for everyday life has many of the same requirements as using a wheelchair for elite sport: for example, the weight should be as low as possible, there should be as little resistance as possible, and the chair must be adapted to the individual’s body. And yet, there is also one big difference. When it comes to wheelchairs for everyday use, comfort is a huge factor because you spend most of your time sitting in them; wheelchairs for elite sports, however, are all about moving and rotating as smoothly as possible. Ultimately, it’s about more than just the design itself; you also need to understand the user’s learning process and physical capabilities, Vegter says. ‘How do people use the new design, and how can we help them learn to use new wheelchair designs?’
The world of paralympic sports is still relatively young, so there is still a lot to discover and develop. ‘Many paralympic sports have grown organically, and wheelchairs have not always been devised and designed based on scientific thinking.’ To change this, the WheelPower project was launched in 2019. The idea behind the initiative is to unite the biggest paralympic sports and share practical and scientific knowledge. To do this, they work in tandem with embedded scientists. ‘These are scientists who put science-based knowledge and improvements into practice. We help with the measurements and analysis, they make the adjustments.’
If science is going to play such a big role, won’t the country with the biggest budget automatically have the best chance of winning? ‘Yes, and, to be honest, I also think that’s a bit unfair. This issue is often a topic of debate. Scientists develop knowledge, not just for themselves but for everyone, by publishing it openly. We want to share knowledge on a wider scale, but individual athletes want to win gold. For the sake of our cooperation, we sometimes agree not to publish anything until after the Games, and keep it under wraps until then.’ But if you don’t involve the rest of the world, you’ll end up with only a few countries competing against each other, and that’s also not what the athletes want’, argues Vegter. ‘Our ultimate aim is to improve the sport on a broader front. I’m not just there to help Dutch athletes win gold, I’m there to help acquire knowledge and insights.’
‘There’s no limit to the work in this field, there are so many questions that need to be answered’, replies Vegter, when asked what else is in store for the years ahead. ‘What really interests me in particular are the innovative measurement and analysis methods we use in the lab; I love working on those. Then we really zoom in on the specifics: for example, what should you do differently in that one millisecond, so that the force and position of the scapula is such that the head presses a little less forcefully into the socket, reducing the risk of strain?’
Vegter also recently joined the Young Academy Groningen (YAG) at the UG, where he has the opportunity to work with young researchers from a variety of disciplines. ‘It’s great fun. I like the fact that you’re surrounded by like-minded people who are in the same stage of their careers.’ He decided to join the YAG in order to expand his horizons. Vegter sees it as an opportunity to apply his skills more broadly and achieve something new together. ‘Even in this interview, we’ve discussed as many as ten disciplines. This subject is relevant in so many contexts. I think that I’ve been doing this for long enough now to know how we can help people with physical disabilities, and I would also really like to get involved as an ambassador.’
Vegter is equally as enthusiastic when he talks about teaching. ‘In working with and coordinating Bachelor’s and Master’s students and PhD students, you can instantly see the application of teaching in research. It gives you the chance to share some of your passion while at the same time really contribute to science-based knowledge and improvement. That’s a powerful way of working, and I really believe in it.’
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