Amp Fin: A Wave of Opportunity for the Amphibious Amputee

By Jolene Montgomery

How did John Birmingham go from being an Army medic to nursing student to a mail carrier to a chaplain at NASCAR, then end up in Maine at 45 degrees below zero, marketing swim fins for amputees?

It began in 1990, when former commercial diver and swimmer Randy Lord was injured while working construction. Hurt in the industrial accident, Randy suddenly entered the world of amputees. As they tried to return to their pre-injury activities, he and his wife Lori realized that they never saw amputees at the beach!  The lightbulb went on. Laurie and Randy built the first Amp Fin prototype in their kitchen, making casts of his residual limb.

Amp Fin Technology

Amp Fin Poised to Revolutionize Water Therapy for Amputees

After 9/11, the War on Terror saw vets coming home with limb loss. When his brother who had served in the Air Force passed away, Randy's spark ignited. He teamed with Cory Laplante, a prosthetist who himself is an amputee. Together they worked on a design for a swim fin they could mass-produce.

Then in 2015, Randy found John Birmingham. The Army Medic-turned-nursing student-turned-mail-carrier-turned-NASCAR chaplain was now home in Maine looking for his next step.

Amp Fin Amputee Fin

John remembers, "I could see the therapeutic value of being weightless in the water and doing PT. I could see the huge group of guys returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with their legs blown off. I just couldn't see how to connect one to the other."

Back when he was still with NASCAR, John started a foundation for honoring fallen soldiers. He would mentor grieving family members, bringing them to the racetrack to meet others suffering the same grief.

"I remember Adam, a young marine who survived 3 tours. When he came home and was unable to find employment, he committed suicide. It was devastating. I began to see that we were losing more service members to suicide than we were to combat. That's the work I was doing when I was contacted by Randy to be the COO of Amp Fins."

Putting on an Amputee Swimming Fin
With contacts stretching as far back through his dad's 28 years as an Army recruiter, John knew everyone in the system. "I began by reaching out to my military contacts in Maine, asking 'how do we get approved by VA?'"

He was met with a warm reception. "The fact that Amp Fin kept their manufacturing in the state of Maine was a big help. My dad's contacts got us an intro in DC. We did a demo at Walter Reed, and the word spread. As of today, Amp Fins have been VA approved in 15 states!" 

Beginning with custom fins, they watched the vets' faces the first time they got in the water. It was clear that Amp Fins could create permanent change. Now, how to get it to a larger market?

Amp Fin produced the mechanically-attached fin last year. Unlike the custom fin, which must be made from a mold of the residual limb, the mechanical Amp Fin attaches right to the socket. John explains,
"A Universal adapter mounts to the end of the fin. You just loosen 2 screws, remove the prosthesis, attach the fin, tighten the screws and done! Simplest thing I've seen in prosthetics."

Making More Amputees a Fan of the Fin

Now, how to bring this to more people?  Enter the Abilities Expo.

John looks at the Expo as an opportunity to network with end users. "We want all the non-profits, the adaptive sports companies, to know about us. We want to use the Abilities Expo's platform to plant seeds and get Amp Fins in the hands of as many people as possible."

Although the Amp Fins are typically sold through a prosthetist, they will be available for purchase at the Abilities Expo with a show special.
Putting on an Amputee Swimming Fin

John's ultimate goal for Amp Fin is to release it to the world. He says, "Our vision is to one day hand the whole company over to veterans. We're already working on an upper extremity fin, a pool and dock lift and aqua therapy ideas. With everyone working to maximize their expertise, growth is inevitable."

The soldier/medic/mailman/cleric/finman then pauses and adds, "When you do something with the right intentions, everything works out."

Come see Amp Fins in booth #246 at the LA Abilities Expo, and other Abilities Expos around the country.

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