Getting a lift from Lehigh
Brian Kaplun '06 inspects the newly built, custom-designed ski with all the enthusiasm and knowledge one would expect from a ski instruction.
Sweet! I can't wait to try it, the athletically built redhead says, laughing. Kaplun then rolls his wheelchair around the basement hallway of Packard Laboratory to view bhe mono-ski from another angle.
Both the new mono-ski and Kaplun’s old one, which lies nearby, consist of a bucket seat mounted on a metal frame and attached to a single ski, and both allow Kaplun, a paraplegic, to glide down snowy slopes. But the new mono-ski contains many modifications designed and built by Kaplun’s former professor of mechanical engineering, Joachim Grenestedt, and Bill Maroun, a mechanical technician at Lehigh.
Years before he built a ski for Kaplun, Grenestedt gave him a much greater gift: the encouragement to take up skiing. Kaplun was paralyzed from the waist down in a traumatic accident that occurred just before his junior year of college. After the accident, the Lehigh community rallied around Kaplun, and he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Three years later, Grenestedt continues offering support, encouragement, and technical expertise to his former student. One day in February, Kaplun drove from his office in upstate New York to Bethlehem so that Grenestedt and Maroun could make final adjustments before they tested the prototype on Blue Mountain’s ski slopes.
“Last time I was at Blue, I could walk,” Kaplun explains during the half-hour drive from Lehigh to the ski area. “I could stand. I could put skis on my feet, and I could get down a mountain, but there was very little actual skiing involved.”
On this trip, Kaplun might not be able to walk, but he can ski.
The summer before his junior year, Kaplun was riding his new mountain bike through Chimney Rock Park in Somerset, N.J., when he collided with a rock and flipped over his handlebar. He woke up 15 minutes later, with a swarm of paramedics hovering above him.
The impact permanently injured Kaplun’s spine, rendering him unable to use his legs.
When they heard of the accident, his family and friends, including those from Lehigh, rallied around him. The week of the accident, Kaplun recalls, a nurse entered his hospital room and remarked, “You must be a pretty special guy.” Outside, there were about 40 people waiting to see him.
“My friends and family have always been absolutely fantastic,” he says. “I love them all.”
Among Kaplun’s visitors were Grenestedt and Maroun, who knew him from Lehigh’s Formula SAE team. Grenestedt advises the student team as they engineer, build, and race a small formula-style race car, and Maroun assists the team as they design and fabricate the machine.
“I figured we’d make it work”
Kaplun accepts his disability as a fact, sans pity parties and crying violins, and he even jests about his injury. While in the rehabilitation clinic, Kaplun whiled away the months by joking with his friends and playing good-natured pranks on the staff and fellow patients.
In the spring following the accident, Kaplun returned to Lehigh, undaunted by the school’s infamous staircases. “I figured we’d make it work,” he says. “Switching (schools) was n e v e r a n option for me.”
To ease Kaplun’s transition back to campus, Pat Chase, director of facilities planning and renovations, and other Lehigh staff, including those in support services, ensured that the mountain was wheelchair-friendly. Chase says that the university strives to accommodate any student who meets its academic qualifications.
Over the years, Lehigh has matriculated students who were hearing impaired, blind, paraplegic, and quadriplegic, among numerous other handicaps, including some with learning disabilities.
“Brian was so self-reliant and easy to work with that all we really had to do was identify the easiest path for him to take between the buildings he frequented most, working out the flattest route and showing him where to park, what were the best doors to use, where the elevators were located,” Chase says.
Kaplun moved into his old room at Brodhead and rejoined Lehigh’s Formula SAE team. While he could no longer drive the car or operate the welder, Kaplun contributed design ideas, helped build the car, and cheered during the competitions.
During their time working on the SAE team, Grenestedt, an avid skier, suggested that he try mono-skiing.
“I think it was very important that he did something, that he got out in the fresh air to do something very fun and challenging and that he met people,” Grenestedt says.
But at the time, medical issues and job hunting deterred Kaplun from attempting any of the adaptive skiing programs Grenestedt recommended.
“I’m not out to change the world”
Following graduation in 2006, Kaplun was hired as an avionic mechanical engineer for Lockheed Martin’s branch near Binghamton, N.Y. The cold and mountainous region draws many winter sports enthusiasts, including several of Kaplun’s co-workers. On a sweltering June day, a co-worker invited Kaplun to the nearby Greek Peak Ski Resort, where they have a program tailored to handicapped skiers.
Initially, Kaplun brushed him off, but as the weather cooled, he decided to attempt the slopes.
Kaplun invited Grenestedt to witness his first runs, which proved to be very brief—Kaplun toppled in the first few minutes.
But as he learned to maintain his balance, Kaplun fell again, this time in love with the sport. He estimates that he skied 20 to 30 more times that season.
These days, Kaplun hits the slopes several times a week while the cold weather lasts and has progressed from an unsteady beginner to a gold medal winner in an adaptive skiing race. Although Kaplun enjoys racing, he prefers to devote himself to teaching other handicapped individuals to ski.
“I’m not out to change the world,” he says. “I’m just out to ski and have a good time. If I can teach people that want to learn along the way and have a good time myself, great.”
During Kaplun’s first skiing lesson, Grenestedt examined the mono-skis available to handicapped athletes . Year s earlier, Grenestedt had designed and built his own version of the mono-ski, which he calls a uni-ski. Unlike the mono-ski, the uni-ski does not have a seat, and both of Grenestedt’s ski boots clamp onto a single ski. Grenestedt must maintain his balance and carve precisely or he will fall.
“It’s more challenging than ordinary skiing,” he says, with a smile.
On Greek Peak, Grenestedt noticed several design flaws in the mono-skis available to Kaplun, and his observations were confirmed by Maroun.
“It’s very obvious that they are not designed by anybody with a good solid mechanical engineering background. They’re nice skis, but there are a lot of details that are not taken care of properly,” Grenestedt says.
For example, most mono-skis have a device that locks the seat in its highest position so that it can slide into the ski lift. But these mechanisms frequently broke, as Kaplun’s had. Without the device, Kaplun had to hoist himself and his heavy ski onto the lift after every run.
Over the next several years, Grenestedt and Maroun discussed possible designs for a new ski. They listened to input from Kaplun and his friends on the U.S. Paralympic ski team and received funding from Aurora Bearings, Penske Shocks, and Volkl Skis. Grenestedt and Maroun finalized their design this past winter, and Maroun fabricated the ski using mostly an aircraft-grade chrome-moly steel.
Their resulting mono-ski is light but more durable than other mono-skis and has several unique features, such as a hydraulic lockout mechanism from Penske Shocks that replaced the lockout device. The shock dampens motion in three directions, and an air spring allows infinite modifications to the ski’s spring rate and chair height. Skiers can also adjust their suspension to improve their ride.
Even before he tests the mono-ski on Blue Mountain, Kaplun expresses complete confidence in the craft and its designers. Grenestedt is “probably the best engineer that I’ve ever met in my life. Bill is without question the best fabricator I’ve ever met,” he says. But Kaplun also predicts that he will need to adjust to his new ski before it allows him to achieve a higher plateau of skiing.
With the final adjustments complete, the ski is ready for its trial run at Blue Mountain. Grenestedt carries the ski to the lodge, where they obtain lift passes and Maroun rents skis. As they enter the building, Maroun remarks about Kaplun, “That guy does more work to get out of bed in the morning than most people do in an entire day. He’s an inspiration.”
Once on Blue Mountain’s freshly blown snow, two attendants steady Kaplun’s ski as he is lifted from his chair to his ski. Although Kaplun can move himself from the chair to the ski, it requires some exertion and he prefers to conserve his energy for the slopes.
Once secure in the ski, Kaplun steers onto the slope. A few seconds later, he falls on his side, but he quickly rights himself and skies smoothly to the lift. Ten minutes later, Kaplun soars past the place where he fell. At the end of the run, he is ecstatic.
“This thing turns waaaaaay quicker,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s more responsive. It feels really, really good. The suspension is good.”
Later that evening, Kaplun is carving better than many skiers, tackling every trail on the mountain with speed and control.
“I think what’s really cool is, on a ski he’s not handicapped,” Maroun says.
Only when the ski resort closes its slopes for the night does Kaplun drive home to New York with both mono-skis in the bed of his truck. Grenestedt and Maroun return to Lehigh, pleased with their work.
Photography by Doug Benedict