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Meet The Paralympic Gold Medalist Revolutionizing Prosthetic Design

Mike Schultz just won a gold medal at the Paralympics. But his work as a designer is helping dozens of other athletes compete, too.

Meet The Paralympic Gold Medalist Revolutionizing Prosthetic Design
[Photo: Joe Kusumoto/courtesy Mike Schultz]

Adaptive snowboarder Mike Schultz is no ordinary Paralympian–and that’s not just because he won the gold in boardercross earlier this week or because he bore the flag for the United States during the Pyeongchang Games’ opening ceremony. He also designs and engineers his own prosthetics and has outfitted hundreds of other athletes and amputees, including 30 Paralympians at the 2018 Games. Schultz isn’t just competing in the Games–his designs are helping his teammates, too.

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[Photo: courtesy Mike Schultz]
Schultz started his company, BioDapt, in 2010, after he was in a tragic snowmobile accident where he lost one of his legs. After recovering, he was looking for a way to get back on his dirt bikes and snowmobiles, both of which he raced competitively. But all the prosthetics for athletes at the time wouldn’t accommodate the amount of impact that riders’ legs absorb–so Schultz began designing and prototyping one that would, using his experience tinkering with dirt bikes and working in metal fabrication.

Seven months after his accident, Schultz competed in adaptive motocross at the X Games, wearing the prosthetics he’d designed. He won a silver medal.

[Photo: courtesy Mike Schultz]
The prosthetics are a combination of a knee joint, called the “Moto Knee,” and a foot, called the “Versa Foot.” Schultz began to develop their design after his injury, when he found that the prosthetic he was using would lock if he straightened it and collapse if it was bent; there was no resistance in the joint. Many prosthetic legs don’t have any kind of internal spring inside–instead, they’re designed to mimic the flow and cadence of your gait.

Schultz’s insight: Outfit them with springs similar to the components of a mountain bike.

[Photo: courtesy Mike Schultz]
He began to play around with designs simply based on his understanding of body mechanics and suspension in bikes. The first prototypes were made of out cardboard. He later learned how to use a mill and lathe at a metal working shop. The key component of the knee joint is the compressed air shocks that can absorb impact and are highly adjustable, as Schultz describes in an in-depth interview with Medgadget. The Versa Foot stemmed from a similar problem: Other prosthetic feet weren’t as flexible he needed them to be for snowmobiling, so he added a mini suspension system inside his own prototype prosthetic. This combination of springs allows wearers of his designs to absorb shocks while riding a bike or a snowmobile.

Though he engineered the system for his two sports, Schultz soon discovered that the Moto Knee and Versa Foot would work for a much broader range of activities–from horseback riding to water skiing to snowboarding–as more and more adaptive athletes reached out to him, looking for better equipment.

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“What makes the Moto Knee so unique compared to other prosthetics is the range of motion that [it] has and all the different adjustments that we can do with the alignment and resistance,” Schultz says. “It’s able to work for so many more activities, because you can fine-tune and calibrate all the components of it.”

[Photo: courtesy Mike Schultz]
Schultz has been working with adaptive snowboarders since he started BioDapt in 2010. In fact, it was a request from an adaptive snowboarder who wanted to see if the Moto Knee could work for him that introduced Schultz to the sport–now his event at the Olympics–in the first place.

To this day, he typically works one-on-one with extreme adaptive athletes to adjust the Moto Knee and Versa Foot system to their exact needs. And word has gotten around–Schultz’s prosthesis is outfitting all American lower-body amputees competing at the Pyeongchang Games, and his company has sponsored three athletes–Brenna Huckaby, Keith Gabel, and Noah Elliot–all of whom have medaled in their competitions.

“As a business owner I’m incredibly proud of all the other athletes,” Schultz says. “My three athletes I focused on–to see them on the podium is an amazing feeling.”

[Photo: Mark Reis/courtesy Mike Schultz]
Right now, Schultz runs BioDapt with his wife, Sara, out of their garage, which “got a lot better and bigger” since starting the company, he says. It’s a very small operation, where Schultz works personally with about 15% of the company’s clients, mostly the extreme adaptive athletes, to adjust the prosthetics to fit their needs. BioDapt also sells prosthetics to clinics, where professional prosthetists will outfit amputees who are interested in an active lifestyle.

Schultz says the company has sold several hundred units over eight years, a business Schultz balances with his competitive career, which has taken him to both winter and summer X Games. “I travel a lot. I didn’t want to be stuck sitting in my office managing the business,” he says. “I found this balance.”

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[Photo: courtesy Mike Schultz]
Now that he’s achieved his dream of going to the Paralympics, he’s planning to focus more on building BioDapt, including new designs: The company will have some new equipment updates in the coming year. “But I’m not done enjoying the sports of motocross and snowboarding,” he says.

He hasn’t reached the end of his Paralympic journey yet either. On March 16, Schultz will compete for another medal in the bank slalom, which he calls “laid back” in comparison to the head-to-head racing in boardercross. He’ll have his trusty Moto Knee and Versa Foot there to support him–and if all goes according to plan, he may come home to Minnesota to run BioDapt with yet another medal.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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