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Cal Poly Students Create Final Piece for Disabled Son to Participate in Triathlon

Joseph Cornelius riding on bike trailerJoseph Cornelius rides in a bike trailer created by Cal Poly mechanical engineering students as his father leads the way on a bicycle during the Project Expo. The two will participate in the SLO Triathlon July 22.

Joseph Cornelius was having a rough day.

When he arrived at the Bonderson for the Project Expo, the 24-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, looked visibly uncomfortable. And he seemed reluctant whenever his father attempted to put him in a bike trailer created by a trio of mechanical engineering students.

But once John Cornelius began peddling away from the Bonderson, towing Joseph behind, a wide smile marked Joseph’s sudden mood change.

“In that moment, we all gave a huge sigh of relief that Joseph loved the trailer,” said Keely Thompson, one of the students. “And were so excited to see him and John happy.”

Joseph Cornelius bike trailer fitting

Joseph getting fitted for this bike Joseph Cornelius gets introduced to his bike trailer during the Project Expo. He’s helped by (left to right) his father John, Curtis Wathne and Ryan Meinhardt.

As Joseph and John prepare to participate in the SLO Triathlon July 22, they will once again do it with technology created by Cal Poly students, who have now made it easier for the unique father-son duo to compete in each of the three events.

“In my wildest dreams, I never thought that we would share a triathlon with Joseph,” his father said recently. “Thanks to Cal Poly, the dream became a reality.”

Joseph’s condition prevents him from walking or talking. Those symptoms became apparent when the Los Osos, CA, resident was a baby.

“He used to have 75 to 100 seizures a day,” John said.

As Joseph grew older, John could see that his son reacted well to assisted walks. And soon John began running marathons with Joseph, pushing his son in a wheel chair. The inspiring father-and-son duo, along with a crew of supporters, were dubbed Team Joseph, easily identified by their bright yellow shirts.

Eventually, the Special Olympics paired with Cal Poly students to help the father and son participate in triathlons. In 2014, students created a 6-by-4 flotation device – the “Aquabullet” – that allowed Joseph to glide on water, feeling the sensation of swimming, as he’s towed by a swimmer. And in 2017, students created a jogger for Joseph.

That left one more event: bicycling.

Since Joseph’s previous trailer lacked safety and comfort features, the students set out to create a new trailer. The students – newly graduated Thompson, from Encinitas, and Ryan Meinhardt, from Sammamish, Wash. and senior Curtis Wathne, from Santa Barbara – were all members of the Human Powered Vehicles Club, whose members love to ride bikes.

“The team met with Joseph and his dad sometimes weekly and did multiple custom fitting sessions as the design and build progressed,” said faculty advisor Sarah Harding. “They really got to know their customer and his unique needs.”

The trailer they designed has a steel roll bar, a five-point racing harness, a custom seat and an attachment that allows the trailer to stay upright in the event of a bike crash.

“The key part when we sat down was safety,” said John, a retired Rite Aid store manager who has a degree in biomedical engineering.

The trailer also features a carbon fiber footplate since Joseph’s spastic quadriplegia caused him to break previous footplates, aluminum fenders to prevent him from getting his hands stuck in the wheels, better suspension and a shade hood to protect him from harsh sunlight.

The team first introduced the trailer to Joseph during the Project Expo, a College of Engineering display of student projects at Cal Poly, on June 1.

The Cal Poly projects, John said, have given Joseph more freedom to be active, which has impacted his physical and mental health.

“When you do this with him, you feel his energy,” John said. “When he’s in the bike (trailer), it’s ear-to-ear smiles.”

Curtis Wathne and Joseph Cornelius

Curtis Wathne gives Joseph a spin around Engineering Plaza.

The trailer frame could have universal appeal for adults with disabilities, Harding said, even though Joseph’s seat cushions were custom made to fit Joseph’s unique body frame.

Just helping one person, Thompson said, was rewarding.

“Being able to use the skills that we developed throughout our experience at Cal Poly and our love for bikes to make an improvement in Joseph’s life as well as his dad’s was incredible,” she said. “Team Joseph was such an amazing and encouraging group of people to work with, and it was such an honor to be able to help Joseph do the things he loves to do.”

While Joseph’s early years were especially difficult, he and his father have participated in dozens of events together in recent years.

“Now we just make up for lost time,” John said.

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