Amputees fielding tennis balls at the U.S. Open? It's a sight that will probably become more common
Ryan McIntosh, 23, and Denise Castelli, 26, competed against some 500 people to become two of the 252 ball boys and girls at this year's U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. Their job is to run around the court to fetch tennis balls and toss them to the players.
They have been getting an unusual amount of attention from players, fans and the press, but then again McIntosh and Castelli are not your usual ball people: They are amputees.
McIntosh lost part of his leg in a land mine explosion in Afghanistan when he was serving with the U.S. Army. Castelli's leg was amputated after complications following a broken leg.
"They're celebrities like some of the players are," Jon Vegosen, president of the United States Tennis Association, told The New York Times.
"Tennis is one of the only sports in the world where able-bodied athletes and athletes with disabilities can play on the same field or court. We have that in our competitions. It doesn't matter whether you're able-bodied or not."
Today, the most advanced robotic prosthetics are controlled by the brain in an advanced human-computer interface. Could such technologies lead to prosthetic-fitted amputees who have more speed or endurance than their "able-bodied" counterparts? Indeed, some have claimed that double-amputee Olympian runner Oscar Pistorius has an advantage. For example, he doesn't get pain in his ankles or feet like his able-bodied fellow competitors do.
Dr. Hugh Herr, once a champion rock climber who lost both feet due to frostbite, went on to become a leading prosthetics engineer. He is now the director of the "Leg Lab" at MIT, where he designs "smart" ankles and knees.
"These systems have to know how to walk," said Herr, who believes that in the future, "Amputees will be able to traverse greater distances with less fatigue." And perhaps field tennis balls better than those with regular old natural legs.
image: Two runners using Flex-Foot Cheetah or similar elastic prosthetic feet (credit: Anthony Appleyard, Wikimedia Commons)