Women’s pole vaulting is surprisingly young. Though the sport has been part of the the Olympics since 1896, the first women’s competition at the international sporting event wasn’t until 2000. Even so, what is even more shocking to learn is that even after 20 years there is still a lack of infrastructure for female pole vaulters. Most notably, no sporting brand makes pole vaulting shoes for women.
This problem motivated Elon University Honors Fellow Madison George to take matters into her own hands by designing the missing footwear herself. George was all to familiar with the issue, as she had been wearing ill-fitting unisex track shoes since she began pole vaulting in high school. According to the Elon student, the unisex shoes on the market do not offer adequate support and have been known to put female athletes at higher risk of injuries, like shin splints.
George was inspired to use 3D printing for her ambitious footwear project after learning about a grant program at Elon University’s Maker Hub, which was awarding $300 to students with projects tackling uncommon or unaddressed issues. George’s proposal for a 3D printed pole vaulting shoe for women was ultimately selected as a grant winner.
George taught herself how to 3D design and came up with a shoe prototype that was fit for women’s feet: the ball of the foot is narrower, there is a higher arch, and seven spikes placed for best support and lift.
Using the 3D printers at the Maker Hub, George was able to 3D print a rough prototype of the sporting shoe. But while things on the design front were going well, she was faced with material limitation: the hub mainly used rigid polymer filaments, which are less than ideal for wearable products that require some degree of flexibility.
Fortunately, Dan Reis, the Maker Hub’s senior instructional technologist, was able to contact Connor TeVault, a graduate of Elon University who now works at digital manufacturing company Carbon. The Silicon Valley 3D printing company has famously worked with footwear giant Adidas to mass produce 3D midsoles for sneakers.
While it seem like George will not be printing her shoes using Carbon’s DLS technology, TeVault did give her some useful tips about FFF materials, such as NinjaFlex, which could be suitable for her shoe model.
“I was ecstatic. He gave me all these samples of different materials. We went upstairs in one of the rooms, and he just cut me pieces of materials to work with,” George said. “I went in thinking I was going to use nylon for this, (thermoplastic polyurethane) for the upper, and NinjaFlex for this. He told me about a lot of different types of nylon and (thermoplastics) and explained their melting points, hardness, elasticity, yield strength.”
At this stage, the ambitious Elon University student has 3D printed two prototypes of the sole for the pole vaulting shoe. Going forward, she plans to continue studying existing pole vaulting shoes and spikes to refine her own design. Down the line, she hopes to develop a shoe with interchangeable soles which could be used for pole vaulting, the long jump, triple jump and even sprints.
Next month, George will present her pole-vaulting shoe project at her university’s Maker Takeover.