Empowering Amputees to Conquer the Seas

By Irisa Gold

Many may recall the story of 13-year-old surfing virtuoso Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm due to a shark attack. She relearned how to surf, returning to the water not even a month later. One might say her success could be attributed to her philosophy, “I don’t need easy. I just need possible.”

Industrial design alumni Zachary Samalonis and Yuhan Zhang have made it their mission to provide the “possible” for leg amputees who dream of surfing the perfect wave.  

Born of a shared interest in sports and medicine, their collaboration began with their year-long graduation capstone project. Motivated by adaptive sports for people with disabilities, inspiration struck after watching videos of adaptive surfers on social media. “We did a lot of research about how adaptive surfing is helping people recovering, because to get out in nature helps physically and mentally,” Zhang says.

“There were surfers in wheelchairs and amputee surfers, and they were riding these waves. We both felt incredibly inspired and drawn to this topic of waves as a healing mechanism from all sorts of trauma,” says Samalonis. “We explored the different struggles that this group of individuals was experiencing, and landed on adaptive surfing for amputees.”

“They have a need and it is a problem we can solve,” Zhang says. “Their current prosthetics are getting broken down in ocean water. This is very expensive equipment and not covered by insurance, so they are really struggling with it.”

Zhang and Samalonis spent their senior year developing a low-cost, waterproof prosthetic, the Swell Surf Foot.

The team began by surveying surfers about what was and wasn’t working for them, the kind of equipment they were using, cost implications, and accessibility. Samalonis explains, “We took their feedback and started making all sorts of prototypes. We went through like 20 rounds of prototype feet. In the beginning they were low-fi. It was just wood. We went to PetSmart and got a bunch of dog toys that were squishy that could simulate the ankle movement. From there, we built what we called an empathy rig that allowed us to test some of these early concepts ourselves to see what was working as well as validate if they were safe to use.”

Once they were able to zero in on ideas that worked, they began to work closely with a local amputee, who tried some of the prototypes and provided feedback. They also performed a lot of testing on a balance board to aid in simulating and analyzing the ankle movement they were trying to achieve.

Many existing prosthetics are stiff and made from carbon fiber. While this allows them to be very light, it offers the ability to flex in only one direction. However, when one walks on the beach or when the foot is on a surfboard, it must be able to flex 360 degrees. Not only did the prosthetic need to move left, right, forward, and back, it needed to withstand saltwater.

There was nothing in the market that met these criteria. Some amputees were forced to modify their own prosthetics that were made with materials that would rust and corrode. Samalonis says, “The only solution available to them was to wrap it in duct tape and hope for the best.”

The Swell Surf Foot’s unique waterproof design features a dual urethane bushing system and sole that closely replicates the grip, movement, and flexibility of a human foot. This innovative concept enables surfers to move in ways current prosthetics prohibit, with improved ankle mobility.

The pair submitted the initial design for award consideration, receiving glowing accolades. They placed first in the sports and recreation student category of the Core77 Design Awards, a prestigious competition honoring excellence across the design field. They were in esteemed company, with other winners hailing from companies including Microsoft, Google, and Johnson & Johnson. Additionally, the design earned gold in the student category of the eminent Industrial Designers Society of America’s International Design Excellence Award (IDEA). Previous IDEA winners include the Tesla Model S and Apple’s original iPhone.  

Due to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been no opportunity to perform ocean testing. Many beaches were closed, and the surf network dispersed. Following graduation and with the ease of restrictions, it was time to test Swell in the water.

Samalonis explains, “Once we graduated, we did a revision of the whole project, brought it up to be surf-ready, and made a handful of Swell models at home together. From there we created a little package that we would send out to a handful of surfers that we'd been working with throughout the project.”

The team has four surfers testing Swell today. “The community has just been great. I don't think we would have been able to complete this project if they hadn't been open to giving us their feedback, thoughts, and concerns. Now Swell is actually being tested and used in the ocean, and it’s awesome to see the difference that it's making compared to what they were surfing with before," Samalonis says. "Yuhan and I were ecstatic to see Swell flexing and working how we intended.”

Ty Duckett, a Philadelphia native who is now in California, is one of the testers. “It doesn’t compare. Swell is like night and day compared to any of my traditional prosthetic feet. It is lighter, flexible, has grip, looks cooler,” he shares.

Zhang and Samalonis proudly report that Duckett wore his Swell foot at the International Surfing Association World Para Surfing Championship in Pismo Beach, California in 2021. Following the competition, he provided additional feedback that will be incorporated into the next revision.

Swell is like night and day compared to any of my traditional prosthetic feet. It is lighter, flexible, has grip, looks cooler... 

Ty Duckett Swell Surf Foot Tester

Samalonis remarks, “A lot of the existing ones that we're currently sending out, we made 3D printed molds and we cast in our garage. So that’s been exciting. But at the same time, that can only take us so far. We’ve put together a package to send out to some preliminary manufacturers to get pricing to see what it would actually cost to make a handful of these to send out.”

Zhang confirms, “We’re still in the testing phase now and trying to send as many as we can put out to surfers to test in the water. We're going to probably do a couple of revisions and change the design a little bit; then start to think about patenting when we have the final design ready.”

This dynamic duo hopes to ride the wave of Swell’s success. Its application is not limited to surfing. “I think we could explore a lot of other areas. This mimics a real foot, so it probably will benefit walking or other sports like skateboarding and snowboarding,” Zhang says.  

“Through our research, we found that doctors suggest amputees and people who have experienced trauma go into the ocean, whether it’s to surf or just to relax,” Samalonis says. “There’s just something empowering about the ocean and the fact that you can just get up and try again on the surfboard. That makes it really accessible.”