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Extra wheels are just the deal for new Morro Bay resident

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

A broken mast on a sailboat is never a good thing, but paraplegic sailor Jordan Koeninger managed to turn that potentially fatal accident into a series of positives.

The 29-year-old Oregon man has found a new home in Morro Bay. With the help of some ingenious friends here, he now has an attachment for his wheelchair that allows him undreamt-of freedom.

Morro Bay Harbor Patrolman Evan Buddenhagen and several other handymen modified the drive train of a mountain bike and mounted it onto Koeninger’s wheelchair. Using his hands to pedal the attachment, Koeninger can drive the wheelchair faster than a person can walk, and he can cover much rougher terrain.

“It makes me much more efficient,” he said. “Now I can go much faster than I need to.”

This story begins in October, when Koeninger was sailing down the coast in his sailboat, Selene, which was specially modified to meet his needs. A snowboarding accident in 2000 left him paralyzed from the waist down.

He stopped in Morro Bay before setting off south again with the idea of visiting the Channel Islands and eventually Mexico. He was near Diablo Canyon when an unexpected gust of wind snapped some faulty hardware and he lost the boat’s mast.

The Coast Guard towed him back to Morro Bay, where he lived on the boat for a while. During that time, he and Buddenhagen became friends.The harbor patrolman, a veteran of many sea rescues, convinced his new friend that it would be prudent for him to give up sailboat cruising. He rented Koeninger an apartment in a “granny unit” on his property.

Because the sailboat was modified for a paraplegic, it was unsalable and had to be scrapped. In November, Buddenhagen drove Koeninger back to Oregon to visit family. During the eight-hour drive back to Morro Bay, the two brainstormed ideas for mounting brackets on Koeninger’s wheelchair that would hold a removable fifth wheel.

“It was Evan’s idea to cut up a bicycle,” Koeninger said.

What happened next, he said, could only happen in a tight-knit community like Morro Bay. Two old bicycles were donated and Buddenhagen and several friends set to work.

“The whole idea was to make it as simple as possible,” Buddenhagen explained.

It took four or five weekends of work, including about seven hours of welding and countless little modifications, and the new contraption was ready. When Koeninger took the hand-cycle attachment out for its first spin, he was grinning from ear to ear.

In addition to allowing greater speed, the attachment lifts the wheelchair’s small-diameter front casters off the ground. This allows Koeninger to traverse much rougher terrain. It also gives him a good arm and cardiovascular workout.

“It’s been cool,” Buddenhagen said. “I’m stoked to see it work so well.”

Now, Koeninger and his black Lab, Nora, are becoming common sights in Morro Bay. He can pedal downtown, detach the hand-cycle unit and chain it to a bike rack and go in and out of shops and restaurants.

“When I wake up in the morning, I can just go,” he said. “I don’t have to wait for a buddy to help me.”

It’s also a good conversation starter. During outings, it is common for people to stop Koeninger on the street and ask him about the attachment and compliment him on its design.

Initially, the two friends thought they had invented something new. But some research online revealed that several models of hand-powered wheelchair attachments are already on the market.

Now, the two men are exploring the possibility of manufacturing kits that would give wheelchair users all the components needed to convert an old bicycle into a hand-cycle attachment. Buddenhagen thinks such kits would be especially useful in poorer, developing countries.For his part, Koeninger has fallen in love with Morro Bay and is hoping to make a living there as a photographer.

To see a video of him using the hand-powered attachment, go to www.jordansname.com.

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