Introducing: 60 Minutes All Access Learn More +
Unlimited, ad-free viewing of 60 Minutes archives, Overtime and extras
Toggle

See How They Run

Technology Aids Athletes With Disabilities Rise To Challenge

If you thought the Bionic Man was science fiction, prepare yourself.

Right now, some of the fastest runners on Earth don't even have legs. They are a new kind of athlete, equipped with metallic limbs and high-tech joints that enable them to set fresh records for speed and endurance at the Olympics. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.


An event called the Paralympics set up for athletes with disabilities was held last fall in Sydney. Like most athletes, they have nerves of steel - but that's just the beginning.

Their legs are made of NASA-inspired materials like carbon fiber and titanium; artificial knees rely upon hydraulics. It's the stuff that airplanes are made of, and while they're not pretty, the result is as good as a human leg and, some say, even better. They're curved now, so they're closer in design to the leg of a cheetah.

These technological breakthroughs have helped turn people with disabilities into super athletes with a speed, strength and flexibility that even rivals what muscle and bone can do.

"It's like running on your toes," explains athlete Paddy Rossbach of her leg. "It propels you forward. It's just fantastic. I'll never forget the first time I got on to it. I thought, I am going to be able to go across the Verrazano Bridge in one stride."

Rossbach set a world record in the marathon for female amputees. Two years ago, she finished New York City's marathon in four and a half hours, beating even able-bodied runners. It just shows how far the technology has come since she first lost her leg.

"I was run over by a truck when I was 6 in England," Rossbach says, explaining at that tender age she thought her limb might grow again.

"When they were doing the dressing, I said, 'I think it's grown an inch already.' And they had to tell me that it wasn't going to grow again," she adds.

Told she could get an artificial leg, the 6-year-old wanted to know if she would be able to walk.

Through the years, Rossbach has done more than just walk. Now 62, she competes on horseback, skis and scuba dives.

But she vividly remembers what it was like to be an amputee when the technology was much cruder.

"In the 1940s, which is when I lost my leg, legs were made of aluminum," Rossbach says. "I had straps that went around my waist, and even though it was made of aluminum, it was quite heavy, and the foot was very very heavy on the bottom."

Now she has a leg for every occasion; besides her running leg, she has a riding leg, an everyday leg and a traveling leg.

"You don't realize until you lose a leg just exactly what your own leg can do," she says.

No one knows that better than the people who make artificial limbs. "Prosthetics have come a long way in recent years," says Michael Stull, one of the top prosthetics makers in the country.

"In the old days, you couldn't see people running as fas as they do now. These components that they have now are just so energy-storing. They just can really run fast," Stull says.

His craft is as much art as it is science: Every leg is custom-made, designed precisely for a person's height and weight. To make a socket, new soft thermal plastics are formed around a mold of the person's existing limb. It permits the athletes to flex their muscles.

Suction mechanisms help the legs fit tighter, making them seem virtually glued on. They are so strong an amputee could literally hang upside down, and the legs would stay on, Stull asserts. And he credits athletes with these breakthroughs.

"It's all the athletes that help us out. They push everything; they break everything; they want it lighter and lighter," he says.

Even the smallest details need to be taken care of; sneaker bottoms are shaved off and attached to the bottoms of these "flex feet" and perfectly aligned to allow the legs to grip the ground.

Making one customized limb is complicated enough. For amputees like Jami Goldman, that challenge was doubled; she's missing both her legs yet today manages to be a full-time professional athlete.

As a 19-year-old, Goldman got stuck with a friend in a snowdrift on the way home from a ski trip. What began as one night stretched into more than a week. They ate melted snow to survive.

"I don't remember ever feeling like I was going to die. I remember being upset and crying," she recalls. "It was, you know, very hard to understand why no one came."

After 11 days they were rescued. Goldman's feet had suffered severe frostbite. After three weeks, doctors were forced to amputate both legs five inches below each knee. She had to learn to walk all over again. "It forced me to grow up real quick," she says.

When the doctors told her she had to start on an exercise regimen, she wondered why, she says. "I mean, I don't have any feet. How the heck am I going to exercise?"

And Goldman had never been an athlete before. She had been the kind of kid who hid behind the school to avoid gym class. After the amputation, her biggest concern was how she'd look.

But today she does a lot with what she calls her Biomechanical Woman feet.

"There's a pylon in them; there's a shock on the outside; there's a spring on it. I can jump and I can run. I can jog," she explains.

Now, more than 12 years after losing her legs, she has become a world-class sprinter.

For more than three years, she has been training for the ultimate test, the Paralympics. Unlike the Special Olympics, set up to help people with mental disabilities, these games are for those with physical challenges. They are held in the same stadium as the regular Olympics and attract serious full-time athletes; there were 4,000 from 120 countries at this year's games.

Some are blind; some are paralyzed. Others are missing limbs. Yet, they are cnsistently among the strongest and fastest people on Earth. They are also among the most dedicated.

Since 2000, Goldman has been coached by Barbara Edmundson, an Olympic medalist and former world record holder. She trains her alongside able-bodied Olympic hopefuls and works her just as hard.

Goldman has already become something of a celebrity. You may have seen her in an Adidas commercial.

Big name superstars are just what Goldman and others are becoming.

One of the biggest is Chris Waddell, the golden boy of sports for people with disabilities.

"I'm Chris Waddell, member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, and I'm proud to be the subject of today's Chevy moment," he said for a program sponsored by the manufacturer.

Waddell always wanted to be an athlete; he was an expert ski racer, until a skiing accident broke his back when he was 20.

This accident did not make him shift gears. "Most people would say this took something away from me," he says. "This sport of skiing took away the use of my legs. For me, coming back to skiing was an opportunity to prove to myself how good I could be."

Waddell says he knew he'd ski again. What he didn't know was how.

Sophisticated engineering provided the answer: a mono-ski that manages to do what Waddell's body cannot.

"During the Paralympics, I'll be skiing 65 miles an hour," he declares. "It scares me just thinking about it."

He's won nine medals in alpine skiing. And now he's mastering a second sport: wheelchair racing. His prosthetics aren't legs, but a lightweight titanium three-wheeler with aerodynamics that allow it to take curves better than most cars. Waddell has become such a strong contender, he could become one of the few people to win the gold at both the summer and winter Paralympics.

But there is one obstacle even the finest training can't overcome: cost. Top athletes get their equipment from corporate sponsors for free. These racing chairs cost $4,000 apiece.

And the carbon fiber legs can go for $60,000 for the most expensive, Rossbach says. The average price tag is about $22,000-$25,000 for a leg.

Most people can't afford that - and most insurance policies don't cover the cost. But there are some things you can't put a price on, like self-esteem.

Rossbach is doing what she can to help the next generation of kids with disabilities.

"(If) you can get them into sports, and they can become proficient at doing it and do it well, then suddenly they don't feel that they're handicapped any longer," she says. "And that carries through to the whole of the rest of their life. And if you can do that, then...you've done something to help them."

Kids like Rudy Garcia show the art of the possible. The 11-year-old was born with multiple birth defects. Faced with the option of their son spending life in a wheelchair with two useless legs, his parents and doctors made an unusual decisio: They chose amputation and the promise of prosthetics.

Today, Rudy is doing things that were unthinkable when Rossbach was a child. And as technology continues to improve, he and other athletes with disabilities will likely go even further and faster.

Will people with prosthetics become the envy of people without in the future?

"Do I think that they are going to be able to run faster, go further, climb higher, do all those sorts of things. You know what? I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone couldn't run faster, with the way the technology is going," Rossbach says. "Will it be fair? Maybe not. They'll tell us we're cheating."

©MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved