A Kwantlen Polytechnic University product design graduate might be a key to success for Canada's wheelchair rugby team at the upcoming Paralympic Games.
Tsawwassen's Jaymes Williams and fashion and technology graduate Laura Hutchison from Victoria have been commissioned by the Canadian Sport Institute to make eight cooling vests for team members to use when they compete in Rio Sept. 7 to 18.
On Monday, the KPU design team unveiled the vests during the rugby team's media day at the Pacific Institute of Sport Excellence at Camosun College in Victoria.
"It's a pretty exciting day for sure," said Williams in an interview with the Optimist Monday morning prior to the media launch. "This is a make or break day for sure, but it's a lot of fun. We have confidence in this. It will work, but really it's about how it functions. How will the athletes function, move around with the vest and will it make a difference - that's essentially what we are testing."
As part of his design engagement course at Kwantlen's Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design, Williams met with wheelchair rugby athletes in 2014 to understand their needs for improved performance, function and comfort.
He worked with instructor Stephanie Phillips, who set the criteria for the course, which was to design a product to support athletes who play wheelchair rugby.
As part of his user research and testing process, he connected with Canadian Sport Institute exercise physiologist Melissa Lacroix, and learned that as a result of their spinal cord injuries, wheelchair athletes struggle to control their body temperature (thermoregulation) so they can overheat while playing.
Armed with this information, he went on to design a prototype of a cooling vest specifically for wheelchair athletes as a class project.
While "ice vests " or cooling vests exist in other sports, his goal was to develop a design that would enhance performance and function for athletes working with the constraints of a wheelchair.
He then partnered with Hutchison to further develop the concept.
The pair joined a group of post-baccalaureate students in technical apparel design and travelled last June to one of the world's leading technical apparel manufacturers in Vietnam, where they worked on the next iterations of the vest.
Last August, they travelled to the Parapan Am Games to extend their research by observing the athletes in action.
"Essentially when we started the research project the idea was to design a product to help people and make a difference ," he said. "Then the doors started opening and it all just kind of happened. To work with the Canadian Sport Institute and then work with the wheelchair rugby team has been just amazing. I never would have dreamed that we would have come this far."
Williams said his career aspirations are to work for a big design firm to develop products that help people.
"I'm young and eager and I want to explore as much in the design industry that I can ," he said. "My goal is always wanting to help people to improve their lives, so hopefully the testing goes well and the athletes like what we have produced. Who knows where this may take us."