Playing golf starts in the mind, according to Anthony Netto. There’s a ball lying on the ground, and you have to make yourself move to hit it. It’s a simple act that with practice and skill can make someone into a professional like Netto.
But things changed for Netto in 1994, when a drunk driver hit his car on the way to a golf tournament in his native South Africa.
The physical trauma he suffered put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life; he would have to find a way to move himself before he could ever hit a ball again.
“Imagine going a round of golf and you just can’t hit the ball,” Netto said. “You keep missing the ball. It’s like a nightmare.”
Netto said that because of his experience he realized the most crucial part of the game he cherished so much: the desire to hit the ball. Following that instinct, Netto started looking for a way to stand up and play golf again. If companies could make artificial limbs and other instruments for improving mobility in the disabled, he thought surely something could be done to help him in his case.
Last month, Netto, 44, stood straight, lined up his golf club with the ball and knocked it 200 meters across the driving range of the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel in Belén, northwest of San José. He did it with the help of the Paragolfer, the golfing wheelchair of his dreams that he made a reality in 2001 with support from medical technology company Otto Bock.
Surrounded by members of Costa Rica Challenge Golf – a program started two years ago at the Los Sueños Marriott’s La Iguana Golf Course, on the central Pacific coast, to offer free golf training to people with a range of disabilities – Netto launched ball after ball over the grass to demonstrate the versatility one’s golf game can have with his wheelchair. The resort recently bought one of the chairs, which sells for about $20,000 through Netto’s company ParaBase-Tec (www.parabasetec. com), making Los Sueños the proud owner of the only Paragolfer in Latin America.
The Paragolfer’s seat lifts a person to a fully upright position with the push of a button. A thick strap supports the knees while another that resembles a weightlifter’s belt hugs the golfer’s abdomen to provide support. The chair runs on two silent electric motors and three wheels that take it anywhere you want to go on the golf course, be it on the rough or in the sandpit. There’s also an accessory on the side for attaching a bag of golf clubs.
The chair fits all sizes, according to Netto, starting with children of one meter in height. The Paragolfer was dynamically designed to make it possible to even stand facing upward or downward on a slope of up to 30 degrees, or sideways on a slope of up to 17 degrees, and still hit the ball without fear of falling over. Netto told The Tico Times he’s safer in his wheelchair than in any four-wheeled cart on the golf course.
“It gave me a new life. I was able to work again,” said Netto, who works as the trainer for the German national team of disabled golfers.
Aside from giving access to the joy of playing golf, Netto says using the chair promotes better health in paraplegics by providing stand-up therapy. He said standing up is therapeutic because it allows for better circulation, prevents pressure sores, stretches tendons and ligaments, reduces spasticity, helps digestion and promotes mobility.
While he was creating the chair, he found others that would let a person stand up, but didn’t allow for much mobility once the person was upright.
Netto says the Paragolfer provides motivation because of all the things it enables a paraplegic to do. For him, it was being able to do something he loved with the kind of ease he thought he had lost.
“It’s about getting people to realize you can have fun again,” Netto said.