CHICAGO — As a kid, Arielle Rausin had little interest in sports — even before the car accident that paralyzed her from the waist down at age 10.
She remembers being forced to participate in gym class at her Florida middle school, until she met a teacher who invented ways for her to play alongside her classmates.
“It was the first time I realized sports could be really fun even though I was in a wheelchair,” said Rausin, 26.
She joined the cross-country team and discovered she liked to race, even when that meant pushing a regular wheelchair around the grass course. She got her first racing wheelchair in high school. By the time Rausin graduated, she’d landed a spot on the University of Illinois’ wheelchair track team and a place in its business school.
That’s where she got the idea for a class project that she has since turned into a growing business and a key piece of gear she’ll rely on when racing the Chicago Marathon on Sunday.
Rausin, who will compete in the marathon’s elite wheelchair racing field, is the founder of a company that uses 3D printing technology to make the gloves wheelchair athletes wear when competing. In the three years since launching Ingenium Manufacturing, she says she has sold more than 4,000 pairs to athletes in 31 countries, while continuing to chase her own athletic goals at races around the world.
It started with an assignment for a course on 3D printing at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Rausin had to choose an item to scan and print. Her coach suggested she try to make a racing glove.
“I thought it would be a prototype,” Rausin said. “I was shocked when it worked and was durable and strong.”
At first, she carried a backup in case they splintered during a training session. But the gloves held up and she raced in them for the first time at the 2015 Boston Marathon.
“Right then, my teammates started saying ‘Hey, can you make me a pair?’” she said.
As Rausin and her teammates competed with them, other athletes would email and ask for the gloves.
“I realized it was something other people could benefit from too,” she said.
There are two main styles when it comes to gloves that protect athletes’ hands when pushing racing wheelchairs: soft gloves, made from rubber and leather, and hard plastic gloves.
Which is best comes down to what works for the athlete, coaches said. But many prefer plastic because the hard surface absorbs less energy when athletes push the wheel than soft materials tend to, said Teresa Skinner, executive director of ParaSport Spokane, a Washington-based organization that provides athletic programs for kids and adults with physical disabilities, including track and field and road racing.
“Whatever energy you apply to the rim is actually going to driving the chair forward,” she said.
Before 3D printing was an option, plastic gloves had to be molded and sculpted by hand. That means they’re custom-built to the athlete’s liking, but because they’re made by hand, it’s virtually impossible to get the left and right gloves exactly symmetrical or perfectly duplicate a worn-out pair, said Adam Bleakney, Rausin’s coach at the University of Illinois.
After logging thousands of miles with one set of gloves, “even a small, minute change feels like miles of change,” Bleakney said.
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The 3D printer makes it easier to replicate gloves, and they’re lighter. Over the course of a marathon, which requires roughly 10,000 arm strokes, even small differences add up, Bleakney said.
All but a couple of the 28 members of the University of Illinois team now use 3D printed gloves, Bleakney said, as do some athletes at Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association in Lake Forest.
“When top athletes are using them, and you see the success those athletes have, we look for best practices,” said Cindy Housner, the association’s executive director and founder.
Initially, all Rausin’s gloves were custom-made. She still makes custom gloves for elite athletes but wanted to offer an option that would be accessible to a wider audience, including beginners and youth athletes, and designed a version sold in a range of sizes online.
Those gloves sell for $150, though Rausin said she gives racers under 18 a discount since the cost of equipment — particularly racing wheelchairs — can be a barrier to entry in the sport.
Soft gloves from Harness Designs, a popular brand, cost $190. Custom-molded gloves are even more expensive if an athlete or coach can’t make them on their own, Rausin said. She tried to make her own pair in high school but spilled boiling water on her leg when trying to heat the plastic and stuck with soft gloves until college.
A Canadian company, Revolution Sports, also has begun making 3D printing gloves, but Rausin said it hasn’t affected sales and thinks the competition is good for innovation.
Innovation can be slow when it comes to gear for adaptive sports because the lack of visibility makes it easy for people to underestimate the potential market, Skinner said.
“Regardless of how big it gets, I so appreciate that she decided to take on this project and turn it into a business and continues to promote the sport with technology that should have been there a long time ago,” she said.
Rausin wants to keep developing products for people with disabilities, and not just athletic equipment. Many products on the market today were designed decades ago by medical companies, she said.
They’re functional, but “weren’t designed with the 2019 user in mind,” she said.
Founding her own company means she can try to fill those needs. It also makes it easier to keep chasing her athletic goals, scheduling work around twice-daily practices and travel to races like Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, which serves as the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials.
The top two American men and women across the finish line will represent the U.S. in the marathon at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, provided they also have completed a marathon below a certain time standard: 1 hour, 34 minutes and 57 seconds for women, or 1 hour, 19 minutes and 32 seconds for men.
Rausin’s fastest time — 1 hour, 40 minutes and 51 seconds, set at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., in June — ranks fifth among American women in the Chicago Marathon’s elite field.
It’s more than an hour and a half faster than her marathon time as a college freshman, in 2012. Though she raced in high school, there weren’t many programs for adaptive sports in her area and Rausin said she didn’t start training seriously until joining the university team.
When she graduated in December 2016 and watched friends start careers, she wasn’t sure continuing to train and race at a high level was the right call. Then she qualified for the national team at the Boston Marathon the following spring and decided to chase her goal of qualifying for the Tokyo Games.
“I’m only young once, and I’ll only have this body once,” she said. “There’s a lot of time later in life for all the things I want to do.”