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Customized Wheelchairs Offer Stylish Ride

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Bill Lasher Jr. remembers what it felt like to go from being a jock playing varsity sports in high school to being in a wheelchair.

``When you're in high school, the whole time it is about being cool. It is hard to be cool when you are in a crappy wheelchair,'' said Lasher, who was paralyzed at age 16 after being hit by a truck while skiing down an Anchorage road.

Twenty years later, Lasher is making cool wheelchairs _ chairs that not only provide superb mobility but beg to be noticed. Lasher founded Lasher Sports LLC in March. He derives inspiration for his designs from the custom chopper and mountain bike worlds.

Lasher's designs take shape in a tidy warehouse in Anchorage filled with tube cutters, drill presses, tube benders and welders.

``It used to be a chair was something you wanted to hide underneath you. This is a chair you can go out and be seen in,'' said Lasher, showing off one of his latest designs _ the ``BT Tribal'' with flame-inspired metal cutouts and an anodized purple, teal, green and gold finish to the aluminum frame.

Lasher, now a 37-year-old schoolteacher, got into custom-made wheelchairs because it was creative and fun. Now, he's on more of a mission to change the relationship the disabled have with their chairs.

``My ultimate goal is to have someone wake up and say, 'Cool _ there's my chair,''' he said.

Bill Lundstrom, a 31-year-old civil engineer from San Diego, got fed up with his off-the-shelf model wheelchair that insurance bought, because one of the bolts that held the seatback on kept falling off.

``One would go and I'd be nervous about the other one. If the other one goes, I could be a quad. I wasn't willing to do that,'' said Lundstrom, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 2002 when a driver in an SUV crossed in front of him and he slammed into the windshield.

``I really enjoy riding it,'' Lundstrom said of his Lasher chair. ``It is a nice change of pace from the mass-produced wheelchairs that everybody gets because that is what insurance will pay for.''

A typical mass-produced wheelchair sells for less than $2,000. Lasher Sports produces five models ranging from $3,995 to more than $8,000 depending upon options. Each chair is customized to provide a near-perfect fit for the customer.

Lasher Sport began with the introduction of two chairs last spring _ the BT, an ultralight yet tough chair with a clean design for everyday use, and the BT Ballistic, a high-style model with an aluminum tubular frame. BT stands for big tubes.

Lasher introduced the BT-G Tribal model last summer at the Abilities Expo in Anaheim, Calif.

``The BT-G Tribal was designed by thinking of what could be done that's never been done before,'' the company's Web site says.

The chair with customized metal cutouts, anodized finish and decorative foot rests, was inspired in part by the American Choppers cable television show, Lasher said.

``People in chairs are people. They aren't anything different. They want to look cool,'' he said.

Customers can get pretty much whatever they want. One customer who is a baseball fan asked for a cutout of a Boston Red Sox stylized ``B'' in the side guards.

Lundstrom's chair also has customized side guards showing a person in a wheelchair fishing _ a nice fit with the nonprofit he started to encourage the disabled to enjoy sports. Lundstrom also handcycles, scuba dives, surfs and shoots trap.

``With the Lasher chair, it is more stable, it is a lot more rugged,'' Lundstrom said.

Brad White, 36, of Mason, Ohio, got a ``W'' cutout as part of his footrest and frame design. He also asked for custom upholstery stitching with his favorite saying on his seat back. It says, ``Live Love Laugh'' _ not bad for a man who has broken his back twice, the first time while snowmobiling in 1987 and the second time while jet skiing a couple of years ago.

White said he's used 10 or more chairs and each one was an improvement. He's so pleased with the Lasher chair he bought two.

``It is lightweight. The maneuverability, it spins on a dime and it is the nicest-looking chair in terms of design and performance that I've ever used,'' said White, who sells securities and insurance. ``I am in a high-profile job with highly compensated individuals. When I sit down with them I use this chair and everyone that looks at it says 'Wow, that's slick.'''

Lasher said his customers tend to be wheelchair savvy.

``These people already know what they want,'' he said.

Lasher Sports introduced two new models for winter use. The BT-Trail has a wider caster stance in the front, with the front casters in line with the foot rest to create a longer wheel base and provide greater stability. In short, the chair helps avoid the 'face plant,' according to the company's Web site.

The BT-ATB (All-Terrain Beast) has oversized 12-inch wheels on the front and mountain bike tires on the back. At 28.5 pounds, it is heavier than the other models but can stand up to off-road conditions. For an additional $1,000, the chair comes with disk brakes.

``This is meant if you are hiking or want to go fishing with your buddies, hunting, whatever,'' Lasher said.

The BT-ATB chair on display in his showroom has an aurora finish. It looks metallic black indoors but takes on a rainbow effect outdoors.

``Obviously, it is a mobility device first and foremost, but it can look nice,'' Lasher said. ``Nobody ever goes out and says, `I'm going to get some crappy shoes to put on.'''
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