STUFF DREAMS ARE MADE OF : Amputee Athletes Make Strides With the Help of Space-Age Technology

In 1984, Donny Alston was a 22-year-old apprentice professional golfer about to take a dramatic step in his life; he had only four days left in the Army and 10 days to qualify for the PGA Tour.

But fate then interrupted Alston's career plans, making it impossible for him to take a step of any kind for a while.

Alston, stationed at Ft. Ord near Monterey, was in the wrong place at the wrong time one afternoon during a leisurely drive through town. A drunk driver sideswiped the motorcycle Alston was riding, and his left leg was severed three inches below the knee.

"That pretty much canceled everything," Alston said.

Not really--it only delayed things. Although Alston, now 27, never made it to the Tour, he has nevertheless become a PGA club pro.

"A lot of people say, 'Wow, that must have been really difficult,' " Alston said. "But really, it's not. All you have to do is bust 80, so it's not that big of a deal. If I can't break 80, I'll go into plumbing."

That's not about to happen. Alston is one of the favorites in the National Amputee Golf Championship this week at Singing Hills Country Club. He is four shots behind after his opening 77 Wednesday.

He is also among 20 of the 130 total golfers on hand playing on the latest generation of prosthetic legs manufactured by a British company under the brand name Endolite.

It is not coincidental that Endolite misspells "lite" in the same manner in which Miller Brewing Co. misspells its top-selling beer. Endolite is everything an amputee wants in prosthesis--and less.

The space-age materials used by Blatchford, the company that manufactures Endolite, are roughly one-half the weight of first-generation prostheses, which were mainly made of balsa wood and plastic.

The Endolite technology was borrowed from the aerospace industry, which has had both the need to develop strong, lightweight materials and the government funding to do so. The major heist from the aerospace field was carbon fiber, a lightweight compound strong enough to withstand the pressures exerted by jets and rockets.

The new material has allowed Alston to trade in his old prosthesis, which weighed 8 1/2 pounds, for a leg that "weighs 3 1/2 pounds with a shoe on it."

"Carbon fiber was the big breakthrough," said John Shorter, Blatchford's foremost expert in prosthetics. "And once we got the weight down, we could start putting high function in the joints."

Prosthetics--which had changed little between the end of World War II and 1981, when Endolite introduced its latest line--now offer amputees spring in the foot, multidirectional movement at the ankle and weight-activated knee brakes that allow amputees to walk just as if they had their original equipment.

In short, says Bob Wilson, 49, a former Bonita resident and a double below-the-knee amputee, "Endolite allows me to golf more normally."

Which is somewhat of a surprise to Shorter, who in the 1960s "entered the profession for two weeks but ended up staying for 20 years."

All Shorter wanted to do was allow amputees to walk with more comfort and exert less energy.

Little did he know that the system would allow amputees to run competitively, cycle, ski and golf.

"Just a few years ago," Shorter said, "this kind of activity was impossible."

Although Endolite's life-like movement has aided normal walking, even running, it still leaves something to be desired as far as teeing off goes.

In hopes of a smoother stroke, Wilson, who had both legs sawed off below the knee by an arrester cable on the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk in the early 1970s, requested a prosthetic leg with a twisting motion above the ankle.

Such a leg would allow for a natural pivot while swinging a golf club. Without that ability, pressure is put on the amputee's limb by the attachment socket and can cause blistering.

Shorter went to work on Wilson's request and showed up at Singing Hills with a leg with a torque-absorbing shin.

Wilson was to field-test it during the tournament, but the joints were too loose, and he instead sent Shorter back to the drawing board.

"That's the best thing about Blatchford," said Wilson, who lives in New Hampshire. "They're very receptive to feedback. You don't have that with other companies."

Alston, 27, doesn't need the torque-absorbing shin but nevertheless says he needed other design breakthroughs to once again become a "real" golfer.

Alston has been using Endolite (which has been available in this country for a little more than two years) for four months now.

"It's a brand new game to me," he said. "I went to the USF&G; Open qualifying round (in New Orleans) in my old prosthesis, and my leg broke off on the sixth tee. I tried taping it up with duct tape, but it just didn't work. I was pretty bummed out, too, because I was born in Baton Rouge, so I might have been able to play in front of a home crowd."

After the breakdown, Alston went to Alan Finnieston, North American distributor of Endolite, and was fitted with a new leg, perhaps the most important part of which was the CAT-CAM socket.

The socket is the part of the artificial limb that attaches to what remains of the amputee's leg. Developed by Finnieston, it actually contours to the bone and forces the remaining muscles to work and gain in size.

"We've actually had amputees (fitted in the socket) who report sensory feedback," Finnieston said. "They can actually feel their toes, or where they would be in space."

Said Alston, "It (the socket) has been a big difference. I'm walking in comfort now. Before I was told by doctors, 'You're an amputee now, it's supposed to hurt.' But now I know that's not true.

"I wouldn't say it's improved my golf game," Alston continued. "But it definitely improved the way I think about playing golf. Before I used to be a banger--I was always trying to drive the green. Now I don't hit it as hard. I play the game, put my drives on the fairway, chip to the green and putt."

Alston now has hope to "play well enough to qualify in all the Florida opens (he lives in Tampa) and at least one in Asia and one in Europe."

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