Competing on an international athletic stage is hard enough.
Now imagine doing it on thin carbon fiber blades, one of which goes flying off in another direction as you race across the finish line.
Or just click through watch this video of Blake Leeper, a double amputee competing for a spot for the U.S. Paralympic team at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro later this summer. (The video can't be embedded here.)
Leeper — who has worked with engineers and designers to brainstorm ideas for improved prosthetics for athletes — still came in second at the July 2 100-meter race, guaranteeing himself a spot on the team. (He'll also be competing in the 200 meter and 400 meter events. At the 2012 Paralympics in London, he won both a bronze medal and a silver medal.)
Leeper, was born without lower legs, but still played sports growing up in Kingsport, Tenn. He was able to try out his first pair of carbon fiber running prosthetics in 2009, and quickly gained a spot on the national team.
The son of an Eastman Chemical Co. employee, he also began speaking with Eastman engineers, who also connected him with industrial designers and developers with consulting group Altair to try and design a better blade. He spoke at two different Industrial Designers Society of America meetings to encourage developments.
One of the worries he brought up from the start was the possibility that a prosthetic could fall off during a race.
During a race, Leeper and other competitors rely on a one-way valve to provide the suction needed to keep a racing blade attached to their bodies. If the valve fails — which can happen if, for instance, too much sweat builds up in the socket that attaches the prosthetic to a limb — a runner can face major malfunctions.
He's said that it's come close to falling off before in races.
“That is something no able-bodied athlete has had to deal with,” an Altair official noted.
The past two years haven't been smooth. While continuing training, Leeper was handed down a one-year suspension after testing positive for cocaine use in 2015, which ended just in time for him to make it to the Olympic Trials. (The use was not considered performance enhancing. Read this Los Angeles Times story in which Leeper discusses working to overcome substance abuse issues.)
The Rio Paralympic games begin Sept. 1.