Pumped-up attitude

By Rhiannon Potkey of the Ventura County Star
Buena High sophomore Nikko Slife uses a special prosthetic with a custom-made detachable end that connects to another piece that locks on to a bar as he gets ready to do bench presses at Mavericks gym in Ventura.

Lifting weights is a bonding experience for many athletes.

They scream encouragement as teammates try to squeeze out one last repetition on the bench press.

They grimace while curling heavy dumbbells and playfully show off their bulging triceps.

Nikko Slife has always watched and wondered how it felt.

The Buena High sophomore was born with a portion of his left arm missing below the elbow.

Although it hasn’t prevented him from playing sports, Slife has been restricted to doing only leg exercises in the weight room while the rest of his teammates worked out in a separate area.

But Slife won’t be excluded anymore.

Thanks to a new prosthetic arm and a pair of weight-lifting attachments, the 15-year-old can finally strengthen his upper body.

It’s like a new world has been opened to Slife. He walks into the weight room knowing he can use every machine.

“It feels good to be able to do as much stuff as all the other kids now,” said Slife, who plays JV football, baseball and basketball at Buena. “I feel like everyone else, and I can already tell it is helping.”

The reason for purchasing the devices went beyond just increasing Slife’s strength for sports. He was developing a muscular imbalance between his left and right sides, and was starting to develop scoliosis in his back.

“From our standpoint as parents, it’s more for his health later in life,” said Slife’s father Rudy. “The doctors can already see a problem forming with the left shoulder going higher and higher. It could start developing more issues with the neck and back, and then everything starts getting out of whack.”

Rudy Slife spent several months looking for weight lifting attachments suited for amputee athletes. During an Internet search, he came across Maxgrip Systems and was intrigued.

Their barbell and dumbbell attachments are made from aluminum alloy and stainless steel, and allow an amputee to mimic what the hand and wrist of a “normal” person would be doing.

The devices were developed by Payam Saadat, the co-defensive coordinator for the Army football team.

Saadat lost his left arm just below the elbow in 1993 due to an explosion when he was a walk-on linebacker at Washington State.

Saadat and his teammate, Harvey Macy “Buddy” Waldron IV, decided to make pipe bomb in their apartment.

They were on their way to detonate the bomb at a nearby field when it exploded in the truck.

Saadat, who was holding the bomb, suffered extensive damage to both of his arms while Waldron was killed when a piece of the bomb tore through his head and into his brain.

Following his recovery, Saadat, wanted to finish his football career at WSU. But the Santa Monica native encountered several obstacles in the weight room.

“I figured I wasn’t going to be able to get myself to the place I wanted to be physically by just using some things available on the market at that time,” Saadat said. “For upper-extremity amputees there is not as many cool toys out there as for the lower-body amputees.”

Saadat teamed with a few engineering students at WSU to design the devices, and updated them over time.

It wasn’t until nearly 15 years later when Saadat was coaching linebackers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that he was able to put his products on the market.

A few of his former Cal Poly players had become successful businessmen and Saadat pitched his idea to them.

“I said back in 1993 that if one day I could help one person it would mean everything, and I have been able to do that,” Saadat said. “We’ve had a few wounded warriors out of Walter Reed as customers and a company in Redondo Beach has purchased our products as well. Even with the amount of units we’ve sold, we still haven’t made a dollar, which is OK. It is more about doing the right thing than making money.”

Once Saadat heard about Slife purchasing the attachments, he came to Ventura to provide an in-person tutorial at Mavericks Gym.

“This young man has an incredible story. Even as an amputee you feel the extraordinary feat that he has gone through,” Saadat said. “Me being an amputee was by mistake and making a stupid decision. Nikko never had that choice. Nikko has been battling this from Day 1 and done an unbelievable job with it. I can’t wait to see what type of young man and competitive athlete he becomes in the next three years and to see how he matures academically and socially because of this.”

To use the attachments, Slife had a prosthetic arm designed by David Littig at Ventura Prosthetics.

The total cost of the equipment was $13,000, with insurance covering about $10,000.

But with Rudy Slife on disability, the family is struggling to pay the rest.

The Ventura Police Activities League has offered to help by hosting a car wash at Buena High on Sunday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

“Rather than just writing a check for say $150, I wanted to do something more city-oriented to help Nikko,” said Frank Padilla, an officer with the Ventura Police Department and a PAL board member. “That is really what we are about. It’s important to make sure as officers we stay involved and visible in the community, especially with our kids.”

Although he’s been using the attachments for only three weeks, Slife can already notice a difference.

His left shoulder is nearly even with his right and his upper-body strength has improved.

After having to sit in the stands during the football team’s lift-a-thon the last two years, Slife plans to be right alongside his teammates next season.

“I am excited,” he said. “I think it will be a lot of fun benching with the other guys.”

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