man behind blade runner

INVENTOR: Amputee Van Phillips. © Unknown.
INVENTOR: Amputee Van Phillips. © Unknown.

MENDOCINO, California - When Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, competed yesterday in Milan in his latest bid to attain a qualifying time for the Olympics, one determined man in this seaside village will have a special interest in the outcome.

MENDOCINO, California - When Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, competed yesterday in Milan in his latest bid to attain a qualifying time for the Olympics, one determined man in this seaside village will have a special interest in the outcome.

Van Phillips, 54, an amputee, invented and wears the Cheetah foot, which has garnered worldwide attention and controversy as the prosthetic design used by Pistorius in his effort to compete against able-bodied athletes in Beijing.

"It would be the most exciting thing to happen in my life, because the C shape was the first foot in my mind," Phillips said, referring to the concept he introduced in 1984.

In January, track and field's world governing body ruled that Pistorius' prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage and that he was ineligible to participate in able-bodied competitions.

Pistorius appealed, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport reversed the decision, saying the governing body's examination of Pistorius was flawed. He is a long shot to reach a qualifying time for Beijing; he says the 2012 London Games are a more realistic goal.

"The Cheetah may be more advantageous than the human foot," Phillips said. "Carbon graphite may be more energy efficient."

But he said he believed Pistorius should be allowed to compete.

He said many other factors were involved: timing, symmetry, the foot's attachment to the athlete's limb, an amputee's limited knee flexion and how he comes out of the starting blocks. Those differences are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

In 1976, when Phillips was 21, his left leg was severed below the knee in a water-skiing accident. At the hospital, he was measured for a pink wood-and-rubber leg and sent home. A former athlete, Phillips said it felt "like a sentence from hell".

Phillips said he became obsessed with creating a better prosthetic leg. When he was a student at the Northwestern University Medical School Prosthetic-Orthotic Centre, professors discouraged him from challenging the status quo, he said. He learnt that the artificial limb industry had changed little since World War II and the Korean War. Most were designed within the cosmetic envelope - a prosthetic resembled the human foot. There was no energy to propel a leg.

Borrowing concepts from pole vaulting, the spring of a diving board and the C-shape of a Chinese sword his father owned, Phillips imagined a prosthetic that would allow him to jump and land.

The result was the Flex-Foot, which includes many designs of prosthetics for a range of people. One of the designs, the Cheetah, was intended for elite athletes. While working at the Centre for Biomedical Design at the University of Utah, Phillips worked on weekends to create an everyday prosthetic that would allow him to run using carbon graphite, which is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum.

The day after Phillips first ran down a hallway wearing his invention, he quit his job, found partners and started a company, turning his basement into a lab. He would make a leg, break it and refine it. He said he came to realise the mistake other prosthetics designers had made: trying to replicate human bones.

"You can't function unless you have a power source," Phillips said.

He studied ligaments that store muscle energy, observing the tendons of porpoises, kangaroos and cheetahs, noticing how the cheetah's hind leg landed and compressed, and the elastic nature of it.

In 1984, his company, Flex-Foot Inc, began selling his designs. Another company sold something similar, but those were not as responsive, he said. Phillips' earliest designs were for a J-shaped foot with a heel. By the late 1980s, he was building the Cheetah, a runner's foot that was C-shaped and had no heel.

Phillips said he received thousands of letters, often from wives thanking him for giving their husbands their lives back. He worked with three-time Paralympic medallist Todd Schaffhauser and Dennis Oehler, the first disabled athlete to run the 100m in under 12 seconds.

Amputees have climbed Mount Everest and completed the Boston Marathon and the Ironman triathlon wearing Cheetahs. Teenagers have worn them to play high school football and beach volleyball.

In 2000, Phillips sold his business to Ossur, a prosthetic and orthotic company based in Iceland.

At home in Mendocino Phillips still designs for himself.

The biggest obstacle, he said, is an amputee's imagination.

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