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September 15, 1994

SHRS professor races to 5 golds in National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Rory Cooper, associate professor and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences really wanted to win a medal at this year's National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Kansas City, Mo.

Every year since 1982, Cooper had won medals at the games, about 125 altogether, and he wanted to keep his streak going. At his first veterans games, he even became a sort of Mark Spitz of wheelchair athletes when he won seven gold medals.

But that was a long time ago. Competition was not as stiff. Fewer than 150 athletes took part in the 1982 games. More than 700 competitors were expected at Kansas City. Then, too, Cooper was no longer 20 years old. At 34, he had reached an age when most athletes are slowing down, even thinking about retirement.

Knowing how badly her husband wanted to win a medal, Rosemarie Cooper was at first reluctant even to mention the subject when Cooper got off the plane at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

"She was afraid to ask in the airport how I did because she was afraid I might not have won anything," Cooper says with a laugh.

Finally, Cooper was forced to broach the subject himself and tell her that he had done "a little better" than he had expected. In fact, he had won not one medal, but five. And they were all gold. He had taken first place in the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800 and 1,500-meter races.

"She still couldn't believe it until I showed her the medals," he adds.

Although his medal total fell short of his 1982 mark of seven golds, Cooper says this year's win actually may have been more satisfying, since he is older, had less time to train and the competition was tougher.

"I was really surprised," he says about winning the five golds.

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games began in 1980 when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America decided a focal point was need for their recreation programs and organized the first games at a veterans' hospital in Virginia.

Approximately 70 athletes competed in those first games. Today, the veterans games are the largest wheelchair sporting competition in the United States and second in the world only to the Paralympics. Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are held every four years and draw between 7,000 and 8,000 competitors.

In 1988, Cooper competed in the Paralympics in Seoul, Korea. He finished eighth in the 1,500-meter race, fifth in the 5,000-meter race, fourth in the 10,000-meter race and won the bronze medal in 4X400 relay.

How tough it is to win at the Paralympics is evidenced by the fact that to accomplish what he did at Seoul, Cooper trained six hours a day, almost seven days a week for five years. In contrast, his responsibilities at Pitt this year allowed him to train only about one hour a day for six weeks prior to this year's veterans games. He trains by pushing his racing wheelchair, working on an arm-crank tricycle and swimming.

"What is really fun is passing a bicycle," he says. "They (the riders) almost fall off." Cooper became a wheelchair athlete after his spinal cord was injured in an accident in Germany in 1980. He was riding a bicycle when a bus pulled out in front of him and forced him into the path of an oncoming truck.

A runner who loved to tinker with bicycles, motorcycles and other machinery before he was injured, Cooper was inspired to start designing wheelchairs in 1981 after he was given an 80-pound wheelchair.

"I thought, 'Man, this is terrible. There's got to be something else,'" he recalls. "I wanted to start exercising again, but I hated it." Then a friend introduced him to a new wheelchair that weighed only about 30 pounds. He liked that a lot better, but knew it, too, could be improved. He began buying steel and aluminum and working on chairs of his own design.

Eventually, Cooper began working with a wheelchair company in his hometown of San Luis Obispo, Cal. When the company decided to make a racing wheelchair, Cooper became involved in that project.

"I tried out one of the chairs we were making and I was hooked," he says.

Thanks partly to Cooper, there are now racing wheelchairs on the market that weigh only 13 or 14 pounds. Like racing bicycles, though, they are expensive. Prices run from $1,600 to $5,000.

Cooper's expertise with wheelchairs also brought him to the attention of Cliff Brubaker, dean of Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and Charles Robinson, chair of the rehabilitation technology program. Cooper, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California at Sacramento in 1989, was offered the directorship of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in December 1993 and joined the Pitt faculty in January.

"They showed me that Pitt was extremely interested in this area [human engineering] and was going to try to become a world leader," Cooper says. "It was exciting to see a University and a big University medical center say that they wanted to make rehabilitation a high priority and were willing to put their resources behind it and go out and get some of the best people and provide them with an environment in which they could succeed." But Pitt was not alone when it came to recognizing Cooper's talents and accomplishments. At approximately the same time he was deciding to accept Brubaker and Robinson's offer to join the Pitt faculty, Cooper received a call from Hollywood. The producers of the television show "Northern Exposure" wanted to do a show that involved wheelchair racing. In the course of talking to wheelchair manufacturers and sports groups in southern California about wheelchair athletes, Cooper's name kept coming up. Finally, the producers called Cooper and asked if he would put together a short biography. They liked what they saw and asked for more details. Time constraints and other issues involving the show's ongoing story lines eventually forced the producers to shift the focus of the show and trim the segment involving Cooper. An episode with a character based on him, however, did air in May 1994.

"I probably would have been in the show, except I was living in Pittsburgh," he says.

Of the show itself, Cooper says, "I thought it was pretty good, but I think they over-focused on the sponsorship issue. The making of a new wheelchair was a neat idea, but became a very small part of it. But otherwise, I thought, it was pretty good." Cooper also says he could see the lines he helped write. He especially liked hearing actor Barry Corbin, as ex-astronaut Maurice Minnefield, use his words to describe a racing wheelchair. "Basically, I wrote that description," Cooper says.

Along with training and competing in wheelchair sports, earning a Ph.D., conducting human engineering research and serving as a consultant for a television show, for the past five years Cooper also has helped organize training camps for the U.S. Paralympics teams. He says he still occasionally thinks about trying out again for the Paralympics himself, but probably never will. "I think I am happy with having a research career and trying to be a world class researcher now and supporting athletes as much as I can by creating new knowledge or training them," he explains.

He does, though, plan to continue competing in the veterans games "until I can't go anymore." He says the veterans games are like meeting 500 friends every year. "They really are a great group of guys and it recharges my battery every year to go there and talk to the guys and find out what they are doing.

"For me, it is a sense of normalcy, too," he adds. "Because for four or five days a year people in wheelchairs are the majority. You can sort of relax. You don't have to present any sort of an image and you don't have to be so careful about what you do and what you say. I really like that part of the games. And the competition is fun. It gives me a goal to stay in shape." Being a racer and winning medals, Cooper believes, has helped him in his work, too. He has found that it knocks down some of the walls between researcher and patient.

"It makes them feel I can be a friend or a confidant rather than just a researcher working with them," he explains. "They feel a little more comfortable that way. "Also," he adds, "when they see I am into sports they get a feeling that we are trying to help them come up with something meaningful. It's not just an academic exercise." Cooper's only complaints at the moment are Pittsburgh's hills, which make it difficult for a wheelchair athlete to train or even get around easily, and the approaching winter. "The snow was beautiful last year, but it was miserable to try to get around in," he recalls. "I couldn't believe it. Every Wednesday it snowed. I just thought, 'This is nuts.' But everybody keeps telling me that wasn't normal. I hope they're right."

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 2

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