Monday, November 22, 2010

High-tech wheelchair gets disabled golfers out of the rough

From The Washington Post. To see a video of Juan using the ParaGolfer, go to

One thing Juan Roldan does not have to worry about when he plays golf is how far to hold his legs apart. That's because the retired U.S. Army staff sergeant doesn't have any legs. They were blasted away four years ago in Iraq by an insurgent's bomb.

But here he is on the driving range of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, a club in his hand and a basket of balls at his . . . well, not at his feet. At his wheels.

Juan is strapped into a high-tech wheelchair that can do a lot of things for amputees and paraplegics, but what its inventor, Anthony Netto, most wants it to do is get them playing golf.

"I call this a little white tablet," Anthony says as he pushes a golf ball around with the face of his 7-iron: the dimpled Titleist as healing medication.

It took Anthony 12 years to develop what he calls the ParaGolfer. He learned to play at 5 in his native South Africa and went on to run a collection of golf schools in Europe. A 1994 car crash left him a paraplegic and made golf difficult. With a friend, he tinkered in his garage until they had created a contraption that could roll through the steepest rough and lift its user into a standing position.

"I initially made it for myself and friends to go out and play some golf and have some fun," Anthony, 47, says.

The German company Otto Bock makes the ParaGolfer. This year, the Armed Forces Retirement Home bought one. For the past month Juan has been coming over from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to use it whenever he can. He recently played his first 18 holes.

"This machine has given me a lot of opportunity to try different things," Juan says. And by lifting him up - pistons sort of scissor the user into the air - it has reduced the pressure sores that are common for wheelchair users.

A bunch of us are shooting the breeze as Juan works on his swing. There's Matt Kayson, the golf pro at the soldiers home; David Neumer, a Special Forces vet who was injured a year ago; Lucile Lisle, a physical therapist from the Veterans Administration; and Craig Cobine, a businessman who has volunteered to help spread the word about the ParaGolfer.

Someone asks Juan if he'd spent much time doing outdoor activities.

He answers, deadpan: "I was infantry, so, yeah, I spent a lot of time outdoors. Definitely doing activities. Quite a bit."

On Dec. 29, 2006, Juan was in Sadr City when a projectile detonated underneath his Humvee. The blast killed the two soldiers in the vehicle and launched Juan into the air. When he hit the ground, his right leg was gone and his left leg was in tatters. All that remained of the M-4 he had been holding was the trigger, which he clutched tightly.

One imagines that holding a golf club was the farthest thing from his mind at that moment.

"No, I never liked golf growing up," said Juan, who is 26 and from New Jersey.

A month ago, therapist Lucile suggested he try golf. It wasn't much fun hacking at balls from a wheelchair, but then Juan met Anthony and his invention.

"I can't guarantee you'll walk again, but I can guarantee you'll have more fun standing," Anthony says.

Anthony created the Stand Up and Play Foundation to try to get the $20,000 machines to as many golf courses as he can. This is the only one in the Washington area.

"You ask anybody why he does this therapy," Anthony says. "It's because he wants to hit a golf ball better."

There's a satisfying ting as Juan connects with his driver and the ball sails into the distance.

"Oh, he's really smacking it now," Anthony says.