"We expect fewer injuries of blind and visually impaired swimmers from our pool wall warning system"

When a blind swimmer is touched on the head or back by a tennis ball attached to a long pole by the so-called "tapper", then he or she knows that the pool wall is coming up. If this signal is given too early or too late, it can result in disqualification or injuries. Researchers in Leipzig, Germany, are currently working on an alternative.


Photo: Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hartmann

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hartmann; © Universität Leipzig

Professor Ulrich Hartmann, Director of the Institute of Movement and Training Science II, Faculty of Sports Science, University of Leipzig and scientist Alexandra Wippich monitor this research project. REHACARE.com spoke with both about invisible, magnetic goal lines and strict regulations.

How did you come up with the idea to develop a pool wall warning system for blind and visually impaired swimmers?

Alexandra Wippich: Several years ago, a student founded a great group of about five blind swimmers in Chemnitz. This group already conducted some early experiments in this direction. This made me interested in the topic, being a former competitive swimmer. Once I found out what a "tapper" does exactly, I was shocked. I thought it was quite violent for swimmers to have a tennis ball bumped on their heads. This prompted us to think that there had to be a better way.

How exactly is this warning system supposed to work?

Ulrich Hartmann: Some of us might already be familiar with the magnetic goal-line technology. We virtually place a similar, invisible, magnetic line horizontally over the water – approximately 20 centimeters above the water surface, about one meter underneath the water surface and at a distance of about five meters from the edge of the pool. The swimmer wears a neoprene headband with an embedded receiver. Once the athlete passes this line, a vibration signal alerts him that he is near the edge of the swimming pool.

What is the advantage for the swimmer?

Wippich: On the one hand, swimmers no longer get tapped on the head with a ball if the tapper is replaced by this system. This results in a higher level of independence that is very important to athletes. On the other hand, we also expect fewer injuries thanks to the warning system – not just in competition but also during training. Even professional swimmers still occasionally bump into the pool wall these days.
Photo: Alexandra Wippich

Alexandra Wippich; © Universität Leipzig

Are blind and visually impaired swimmers included in the development?

Hartmann: The German Swimming Association for People with Disabilities (German: Deutscher Behindertenschwimmverband) has expressed interest in supporting us.

Wippich: We cooperate with clubs and support groups in the Leipzig area. The blind test persons already train directly on campus. At the start of the project, there have been workshops for example where we worked with blind swimmers between the ages of 14 and 17. Among other things, we found out that the athletes only want as much help as is absolutely necessary.

What is the project’s current status?

Hartmann: The project’s preliminary assessments have already been completed. Now the focus is on the actual feasibility and viability of the idea. We expect the first practical test runs by spring of 2016. The subsequent focus will be on miniaturization and optimizing the system for practical application.

We also have found a co-operation partner at this point, a company in Southern Germany. This way, we can now merge industry and university.
Photo: Swimmer in action

While swimming the athletes can be very fast. If blind swimmers are not warned in time that they come near the pool wall, they can get hurt; © panthermedia.net/ Jenny Sturm

Will the system also be used in practice, for instance in athletic competitions such as the Paralympic Games?

Hartmann: This is not up to us, of course. We primarily provide the tool for this. However, if everything is well planned and implemented, it could definitely prevail. But this was not our original goal! However, we would be absolutely delighted, of course.

Basically, the problem is the rules and regulations of the associations. For the International Swimming Association, tappers are an auxiliary aid. Our new system could also be classified as such and subsequently needs to first be officially approved and certified. However, we believe that our system is both more modern and more ethical than a tapper. That’s why we hope that it will be approved by the associations. If not, we think they have missed its potential.
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(Translated by Elena O'Meara.)