When Making Wheelchairs For The Boston Marathon, 'We Get Personal'
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Tomorrow's Boston Marathon will be a team competition for some runners. They will push their wheelchair-bound teammates along the course and up Heartbreak Hill. Competitors have a wheelchair maker in rural Massachusetts to thank for helping them get across the finish line. WBUR's Shira Springer traveled to the machine shop where running wheelchairs are custom made and met some of the athletes who inspire the business.
SHIRA SPRINGER, BYLINE: It's a Saturday afternoon at the Southbridge Tool and Manufacturing Company in Dudley, Mass. A welder is working on an aluminum wheelchair frame.
MIKE DIDONATO: We're 30 chairs behind (laughter) on orders, which I guess is a good problem to have, but I don't like to have that problem. I want to just build them and get them out.
SPRINGER: Mike DiDonato's family owns Southbridge Tool. Typically, the company makes jet engine tools, aluminum catwalks and ladders for water towers. It was DiDonato's idea to get into the wheelchair-making business. When I asked him why, DiDonato gets teary eyed.
DIDONATO: We're changing people's lives. Every chair that goes out, we know who it goes out to. We pretty much know what issue there may be with them - why they can't walk, why they need a chair. So we get personal.
SPRINGER: The chairs are designed for riders who cannot push themselves. Some have cerebral palsy, some traumatic brain injuries. Some are quadriplegics. Each chair is designed to be as comfortable as possible for the riders. That includes custom sizing and custom padding. The three wheelchairs are also as light as possible. The runners use aerodynamic handlebars raised to chest height to push and steer.
It all started when Dick Hoyt walked into the machine shop. In the running world, Dick and his son Rick are legends. They've completed over 1,000 races together, including 32 Boston marathons, with Dick pushing and Rick riding. They're known as Team Hoyt. The Hoyts told the DiDonato they needed a new chair, and they needed it fast. The 2010 Boston Marathon was two months away.
DIDONATO: I just put my hand out, shook Dick's hand. I said we're going to make it for you.
SPRINGER: They made a crude steel wheelchair that didn't look pretty, but it worked for Team Hoyt. After that, Dick would come by the shop and suggest design changes. Now DiDonato and one of his welders brainstorm ways to make the chairs better.
DIDONATO: Late-night coffee, welding and Led Zeppelin (laughter). We crank Zeppelin on the radio, and we're just working here late to catch up and to work on prototype stuff, as well.
SPRINGER: Orders come in regularly from around the world. DiDonato expects to make 125 chairs this year, and every customer is like family.
DIDONATO: Nick, what's up, buddy? Good to see you.
SPRINGER: DiDonato hugs rider Nick Draper and runner Ted Painter. They will be racing in the Boston Marathon. They head out to an empty parking lot. Painter almost looks like he's sprinting. He easily maneuvers the chair and checks in with Draper as they go.
TED PAINTER: How do you feel, Nick?
NICK DRAPER: Good.
I think he likes the crowd at the Boston Marathon. It's just rawr (ph) the whole way from the beginning till the end, and I think that's what you kind of like most about it, right?
SPRINGER: I asked Draper how fast they plan to go in Boston.
DRAPER: Damn fast.
SPRINGER: Damn fast. Painter says they hope to finish in under three hours. That's certainly damn fast and close to a personal best. For NPR News, I'm Shira Springer in Boston.
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