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Warriors on the Water

Fast times on the water for amputees
New program takes wounded onto lake in modified hydroplanes

Two amputees were in for a day of exhilaration as they skimmed the surface of the water at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s American Lake on May 8, 2014, zipping around at almost 60 miles per hour in a specially modified hydroplane.

“It’s incredible that they would do this for us,” said Wayne Biggs, one of the two amputees who drove the boat.

This was test day for a new “Warriors on the Water” program, created at the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent to get lower-leg amputees in hydroplane races.

“It’s proof-of-concept day,” said Patrick Gleason, a program volunteer and referee for hydroplane races with the American Powerboat Association. “We want the drivers to try it, see if they like it and if it’s something they want to do.”

The program was created in collaboration with hydroplane racing legend Chip Hanauer, who volunteers at the Puget Sound Veterans Administration and Jeffrey Heckman, a doctor at the VA hospital’s Regional Amputation Center.

Together they came up with the idea and reached out to the museum staff, who brought it to life.

“We did a lot of talking with Dr. Heckman for this program,” Gleason said. “We went through everything with him and got a good understanding of their needs and safety concerns.”

Biggs and Kelly Bailey, the two test drivers, had never seen a hydroplane in person, let alone raced one before the event. Biggs is not a military veteran, but makes prosthetics for veterans at the Puget Sound Veterans Administration. He said he wanted to help pave the way for his patients to get involved in the program.

“For the amputees that I treat, I’m always looking for things for them to get involved with,” Biggs said. “After they lose a limb, they’re often trying to figure out what’s next. I want to help them do that.”

Most hydroplanes are made to kneel in, but for the program they were loaned a laydown boat from a private owner. They made a few modifications and painted it with the “Warriors” logo.

“If you like it, you can keep racing with us,” said David Williams, executive director at the museum, to the amputees before they got into the boat. “We want to create a motorsport that’s not adaptive, but that you can race with everyone else.”

Inside the boats made for one, amputees lay on their bellies. There was little room to maneuver, especially with all the required safety gear. Each amputee squeezed a lever with his left hand and steered with the right.

Although skimming on water at fast speeds might seem like a difficult skill to master, especially with a prosthetic limb, after some quick instruction the test pilots were soon speeding down the lake with ease.

“We don’t think it’s as big of a challenge for them as most people might,” Gleason said. “It’s mostly an upper-body workout.”

Bailey, an Army ROTC cadet before he lost his leg, went first. He circled around the lake in an oval formation several times.

After the rush of controlling such a fast machine, he couldn’t contain a smile as he exited the boat.

“It was a blast,” Bailey said to a small crowd standing by and waiting to hear his reaction. “It was faster than I expected and a lot of fun.”

He then got right back in the boat and readied himself for another, faster run.

Everyone was ecstatic; the program would be a success and it was something that amputees could do just as well as anyone else.

In the future, the program’s volunteers said they hoped to get more wounded warriors involved and competing in local hydroplane races. Race season began in April and runs through September.

If you’re a lower-leg amputee or want to be a volunteer, contact Williams at the museum at 206-764-9453.

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