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New sit-ski sled technology propelling Canadian athletes at Sochi Paralympics

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SOCHI, Russia - Even though he won't be racing down the slopes of Rosa Khutor, Joe Franklin is one of the most important members of Canada's para-alpine team.

The squad's technician has spent the last four years perfecting a sit-ski sled that maximizes both performance and safety, and after a lot of trial and error, the project appears to be on the right track at the Sochi Paralympics.

"This is a new sport. We're kind of figuring it out as we go," said Franklin. "There is a lot of leeway. This is very young and that's what's so exciting about it."

A sit-ski is a sled used by athletes with limited or no mobility in their legs. What Franklin has done is trade the usual all-terrain vehicle shocks for mountain bike shocks by using a lever system, while at the same time switching to a tube design to make the sleds lighter and more adaptable.

Canada's athletes couldn't be happier.

"There are a lot of things in the fine-tuning and the leverage that are a little more complicated for my simple brain," said sit-skier Josh Dueck, who won Paralympic silver in the men's downhill in one of the sleds on Saturday. "Bottom line is it makes it a smoother ride, more consistent and it's safer for me to challenge the (racing) line and go faster and keep up with the competition."

Dueck, who looked to be on his way to a gold medal in Sunday's super-G before getting disqualified for missing a gate, said the difference in sleds has been night and day since the high-performance program first received funding from Own the Podium back in 2007.

"It's taken me a while to catch up with the technology," he said. "When I started I was better than my ski and that was hard for me because I had to take big chances to make small gains. Now this technology is a lot better than I am so I'm trying to catch up with it and it seems that timing is in my favour right now. I'm just starting to catch up with it consistently.

"The ski made it feel like I was moving a little bit slower and a little more comfortable and yet my timing showed I was fastest on the hill."

For all the accolades now, there were issues during the sled's development.

"It's difficult to develop a product at the same time you want to race it," said para-alpine coach Jean-Sebastien Labrie. "A year ago we ran into a bunch of problems but this year we're in a really good place and it works really well. We fixed all the issues."

Instead of having a solid piece of metal connecting the ski to the body of the sled, the new model has a number of parts that fit together, allowing competitors to switch skis and raise or lower the grade depending on the event.

Franklin said a few other national teams are starting to switch to new technology, but the simplicity of the older sleds held development back for a number of years.

Canadian sit-skier Kimberly Joines, who was involved in a crash last year in Sochi that sent her to hospital, said she's most pleased with the safety of the new sled.

"It was a struggle in the early years," she said. "I definitely wasn't liking it that much back then. But since Joe has come on board we've just ramped up. I feel like a lot of my injuries actually were the result of equipment failures along the way — the ski coming out of the binding, that sort of thing."

Joines said that Franklin's contribution since 2010 has been invaluable to making the sled feel like an extension of her body when she's racing.

"He has real good knowledge of the inner working of shocks, above and beyond what anyone else on the circuit would have access to," said Joines, who won a bronze medal in super-G at the 2006 Paralympics. "He's really made our shocks just emulate knees and ankles and hips a lot better."

A Paralympic silver medallist in slalom four years ago, Dueck added that he's never been more comfortable on the slopes.

"(They have created) a product that allows me to take less risk and get more gain from it," he said. "My touch to the ski and thus the snow is a lot cleaner, so my precision is there. I can move the ski to where I want with less effort and more consistency and at the same time, if I do hit a big pot hole, the suspension can take that up as well.

"We're trying to mimic the human body and I think we've taken some pretty big steps. It will take me a little while to catch up to the technology, but I'm in a good place today."

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