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