Swimmer Andrew Mullen last week put his bespoke, student-designed sports tech to the test, taking home Silver for Team GB in the men’s Paralympic 50m backstroke, S5 and Bronze in both the 100m and 200m men’s freestyle, S5.

The double world silver medallist racked up the medals in the pool in Rio, swimming in five events at this year’s Paralympics.  Working with students from London’s Imperial College, Mullen has tested a series of innovative devices to help both in and out of the pool.

In the run up to Rio, Andrew’s strongest stroke was the 50m backstroke; an event posing a unique set of challenges for the athletes. Backstroke events begin in the water, with swimmers resting their feet on a ledge. To hold themselves in position before the starting gun, swimmers must reach up to a set of bars on the poolside. For some athletes, this is a barrier in itself.

Dr Ian Radcliffe, a bioengineer and project manager for the ‘Sports Innovation Challenge’ at Imperial College, has been overseeing the student’s progress.

“There’s such a variety of competitors,” says Dr Radcliffe. “Swimmers with one functional arm tend to just grab with that arm, while I’ve seen those without any arms have their coaches hold a towel and they bite down and hold on with their teeth until the starter goes.”

The final design

Designed by students Kathryn Sayer, Andrew Goodhead and Pui Sze Sham, the kit keeps Andrew poised and ready on the blocks. The project was part of a student opportunity scheme at Imperial.

Talking us through the final design, Dr Radcliffe said: “Andrew has some grip with his stumps but is not able to reach up to those bars which are quite high on the poolside out of the water. So he started using these luggage straps to wrap around the block then grip on, but they kept breaking. The students came up with this simple but elegant system, using adapted horse riding stirrups, climbing carabiner and reins. Crucially it’s easy for Andrew and his coach to set up and adjust.”

Finding the perfect design for Andrew however was no easy feat.  After months of testing, the team took several designs to the World Swimming Championships in Glasgow.  The result: a silver medal in the men’s 50m backstroke, and a design to take to Rio.  The favourite was so well thought out it even drew the attention of officials.

“In Glasgow, Chris Furber, Performance Director for GB para-swimming, was ecstatic with the design and came over to myself and the students and gave us a big pat on the back,” Dr Radcliffe said.

Engineering training aids

With five different disciplines to prepare for, Andrew’s training plan was a rigorous one. Hand paddles add resistance and help competitors build up strength in the water.  Many of these have finger loops to keep them in place, which can prove impractical for some athletes.

A second team of student engineers set about adapting some hand paddles for Andrew.  A series of prototypes gave way to a custom-moulded set, fitting Andrew’s arms perfectly.

Out of the pool, Andrew’s training plan includes weights and machine training. Single-sided squats are particularly beneficial, building up strength in his fully-functional right leg.   To make sure Andrew keeps his balance and the correct posture, the students have developed a rig that improves technique.

“It’s a gimbal rig with a lifting platform and a counter balance, so basically he can put his short left leg onto it then as he squats with the right. It will drop down with him and lift back up – kind of like those assisted dip and pull-up machines in the gym,” Dr Radcliffe said.

The rig is now installed at the British Para-Swimming National Performance Centre in Manchester.