Where are they now: Franz Nietlispach

Latest in series catching up with former Para athletics stars 16 Jun 2018
a male hand cyclist

Franz Nietlispach's transition from athletics to hand-cycling led to a post-sport career

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When it comes to wheelchair racing, Franz Nietlispach was renowned worldwide.

Winner of 14 Paralympic gold medals, 20 world titles and multiple major marathons around the globe – including five victories in Boston, USA - the Swiss star was for many years the man to beat in the T54 class.

But the Nietlispach name is also synonymous with hand-cycling: carbonbike, one of the world’s most successful hand bike manufacturers in the world, was Nietlispach’s brainchild and quickly became the key focus in his life after Para athletics.

“When I did hand-cycling I didn’t really do it to win medals, I did it more to develop the hand-cycle,” said Nietlispach, who after taking up the sport in 2005, quickly saw the need for a lighter model of hand bike, rather than the aluminium versions used at that time.

Nietlispach had stopped wheelchair racing after the Athens Games in 2004. After taking up the sport in 1981, the continuous demands on his body were taking their toll and the Swiss suffered shoulder problems exacerbated by the repeated pushing movement required to train and race.

He turned to hand-cycling after his doctor suggested he try a sport that required a pulling movement as well as pushing.

In 2006, Nietlispach got together with Jaroslaw Baranowsky from Poland, “one of the best engineers working with carbon”, and set a goal to make “the best hand-cycle” out of carbon.

“I saw the possibility to make a lighter and more aero dynamic hand-cycle. I realised that this could be a really good project,” he said.

It was a project that quickly took over Nietlispach’s life.

“All the races I did, I tested prototypes. I did a lot of training, but only to keep on a high level to show the other guys a good bike. I was more a businessman than an athlete,” he added.

In 2008, Nietlispach sold his first carbonbike. The company quickly took off.

“I remember the first year we sold 20, the second was 30 and the third was 60. Then it was always between 60 and 80 each year.

“At the last World Championships and Paralympic Games we won more than 50 per cent of all possible medals. It was a project which was more important for me than the sport.”

Nearly three years ago, the 60-year-old sold the company to American Chris Peterson, co-founder of Top End wheelchairs. Nietlispach no longer is involved in production, but he is still a dealer.

He also has a new project, MIAMIGO, an electric powered device that attaches to the front of a wheelchair and pulls the chair along.

Still, it’s clear Para athletics is never far from his mind. The tremendous success of fellow Swiss wheelchair racers such as Marcel Hug and Manuela Schaer also makes him particularly proud.

“We are a small country and we have such good athletes. It speaks for itself and makes us all so proud, because I was a part of this development,” said Nietlispach.

“I first met Marcel when he was about 10-year-old, for him I was something like an idol. I was in contact with Paul Odermatt (Hug’s coach). When you see you can help someone else and they have fun or like it too, that is what it’s all about.

“When I had advice or ideas I always spoke with Paul, I didn’t want to be between them. I always tried to help, but it was also my career – first I was an athlete. I was sponsored by Top End so when I got a new chair I gave my old one to someone else so they could start racing.

“I think if I had no problem with my body I would still race, because I had such fun and I love travelling. I really miss it and first of all I miss all the friends I have all over the world.”