Shared Interest, Great Solution

By Angela La Voie

Greg LaKomski found a way to turn his limb loss into success for himself and possibility for others.

LaKomski rides in the 2011 Extremity Games. (Photographs courtesy of Orthotic & Prosthetic Technologies.)

In 1996, Greg LaKomski was injured in a car accident in Austin, Texas, and underwent a transtibial amputation. An avid cyclist prior to his car accident, LaKomski was determined to return to the sport he loved. Just weeks after his amputation, LaKomski, a mechanical engineer, began training on an indoor bicycle using a device he and his wife concocted from a broom handle and a plastic flowerpot.

"Getting back to training so quickly was really important for me psychologically," LaKomski says. "I needed to know that [cycling] was out there for me," he says.

As LaKomski continued to heal, he began working with a more conventional riding leg. Within a year of his car accident, he competed in his first post-injury road-cycling race. He says that it was great to get out there racing again.

Today, LaKomski, 56, competes in mountain biking, road racing, rowing, and erging-a sport that involves racing on a rowing machine. Erging is "sheer pain and agony," LaKomski says, despite how much he says he enjoys the sport.

In June 2012, LaKomski placed second at the Extremity Games in the transtibial division mountain bike race. The Extremity Games, held in New Braunfels, Texas, is a two-day event that includes competition, clinics, and exhibitions for athletes with limb loss or spinal cord injury.

Competitively, it's been a busy year for LaKomski. He recently won the Texas state rowing championships in the adaptive category, and he earned a top cycling time at this year's University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) Endeavor Games, Edmond.

LaKomski displays how well his riding prosthesis works for him at a race.

The road to competitive success has been paved with a lot of trial and error. Over the years, LaKomski has worked with a variety of prosthetists and numerous prosthetic devices to find the best solution for him. "It's very difficult [for prosthetists] to relate to someone who wants to push the envelope," LaKomski says.

His athletic competitiveness added a different dynamic to his prosthetic needs, he explains. Working with prosthetists who were not athletes proved difficult because they didn't have a foundational understanding of athletics.

LaKomski met his current prosthetist, Aaron Foreman, MSPT, CPO, in the spring of 2008 at-where else-a local bike race. After watching LaKomski race, Foreman introduced himself to the cyclist and suggested that he could make LaKomski a better riding leg.

Foreman is the founder and CEO of Orthotic & Prosthetic Technologies, headquartered in Austin, Texas.

"He's an incredible athlete," Foreman says of LaKomski. "I knew I could help him."

When Foreman and LaKomski met, LaKomski was using a very different riding leg than the one he uses today. "The leg I was using was a straight pylon that was ergonomically incorrect," LaKomski says, recalling how much pain he felt in the early days of riding with a prosthesis. "It was brutal on my hips and back," he says.

When they began working together, Foreman would watch LaKomski race and observe him on a training bike. The time Foreman spent understanding LaKomski's prosthetic needs and their common ground as athletes has led to a great partnership, LaKomski says. Foreman rides road and mountain bikes, plays tennis, and used to race motocross.

"The...relationship between the prosthetist and the individual should not be overlooked," LaKomski says.

Even with a good working relationship and careful observation, it took time to create the best riding leg. "We went through a lot of iterations initially," LaKomski says. With each iteration, he and Foreman would look at what wasn't working or what had broken. LaKomski also investigated what other cyclists were doing. Soon after he met Foreman, LaKomski attended a riding camp at the United States Olympic Training Center, San Diego, California, where he was able to compare notes with top cyclists who ride with prostheses.

LaKomski's input and Foreman's observations helped Foreman to design and fabricate a riding leg that better suits LaKomski's needs. LaKomski's current prosthesis incorporates an Össur Vari-Flex foot and a preflexed Engineered Silicone Products' Aegis silicone locking liner. The carbon-fiber foot "gives him more symmetry," Foreman says.

LaKomski describes his riding leg today as being "100 percent better," adding that his hips and back no longer get sore.

LaKomski and Foreman work together.

"The socket is a cycling-specific design incorporating lower trimlines on the posterior shelf to accommodate increased knee flexion angles," Foreman says.

The work LaKomski and Foreman have done together is benefitting other athletes. "Other riders are now using this same technology," LaKomski says. "It takes a fraction of the time to get them on a bike and adjust the bike and the prosthetic."

LaKomski believes that the options for athletes with limb loss will continue to improve and expand with so many young, active veterans coming home from the front lines in need of prostheses. Meanwhile, he says he is very grateful that he connected with Foreman. "He should be a role model for the rest of the prosthetics industry," LaKomski says of his prosthetist. "He's done some great things with people in difficult situations."

LaKomski spends quite a bit of time paying it forward to help other athletes these days, according to Foreman. "He's...a mentor for other amputees in our office. That's particularly important for new amputees," Foreman says. "He motivates people. He's gotten so many others out on the bike or out rowing. He is not young, and yet he's out there constantly competing," Foreman says, which is inspirational for many.

In addition to serving as an inspiration athletically, LaKomski has developed a great network of resources, including healthcare providers and trainers who are comfortable working with athletes who have amputations, Foreman says. LaKomski has volunteered in the physical therapy courses that Foreman teaches at Texas State University (TXST), San Marcos. "This way, the students gain experience working with live amputees," LaKomski says.

LaKomski is passionate about his work as a member of the board of directors of Texas Rowing for All, Austin. The group is committed to providing water sports opportunities to children and adults with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. Texas Rowing for All offers stand-up paddling, kayaking, rowing, and canoeing as some of its activities. The group promotes the physical benefits of water sports and aims to foster improved confidence, independence, and self-esteem that come from being physically active.

"Texas Rowing for All helps people who want to experience water sports but may not typically be able to do so in their everyday lives," LaKomski says. "You might really want to try rowing or kayaking, but not be in a situation to do so."

In addition to hosting open events, the group encourages individuals to train and compete in water sports.

When asked about his next big goal, LaKomski points to the research he is working on as part of the master's degree in computer science he is pursuing at TXST.

"Other than that, maybe kick back for a minute," LaKomski says. "I have to take some time to reflect on what's next."

Angela La Voie is a freelance writer based in the Denver, Colorado, area and writes on health, wellness, and technology.