Rainer Küschall began playing table tennis in the 1960s during his rehabilitation at the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Representing Switzerland he competed at the Tel Aviv 1968 Summer Paralympic Games in table tennis. From the Heidelberg 1972 Games onwards he competed in both table tennis and athletics. In wheelchair racing he broke the world record for almost every distance on several occasions.

Rainer Kuschall racing in 1992

Early life 

Rainer Küschall was born on the 17th of April 1947 in the small municipality of Films in Switzerland.

In July 1963, when he was 16, he broke his neck in a swimming pool diving accident causing severe injuries to his cervical spine which left him quadriplegic.

Rainer was sent to the large local hospital near his home and, because of a lack of knowledge about treating spinal injuries in Switzerland, was left to lie on his back for six months. In December of the same year he was moved to a smaller convent hospital as the large hospital was freeing up beds in preparation for the winter skiing season.

It was through a friendship Rainer had made the previous winter, while skiing, that he found out about the treatment available at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The residents of his home village raised the money for him to be flown to England for three months treatment at Stoke Mandeville in December 1964, 18 months after his accident.

After arriving at Stoke Mandeville, his first “big shock was being turned on my bed every three hours” as he had been immobile, lying on his back for eighteen months. After his first meeting with Dr Guttmann he was sent for physiotherapy.

A few weeks later he came back to me and said. ‘Rainer, I am not going to try and kid you about any miracle cures. The only thing I will be able to do for you is to get you so that instead of lying on your back you can sit up in a wheel chair.’ And that is the first thing I learnt to do. It was really hard; I felt like I wanted to die, I hadn’t sat up for so long that all the blood ran out of my arms and went into my feet.

Life as a Paralympic Athlete 

At the Tel Aviv 1968 Games, Rainer represented Switzerland in table tennis, going on to compete in table tennis and athletics at the Heidelberg 1972, Toronto 1976 and Arnhem 1980 Summer Paralympic Games. The Stoke Mandeville 1984, Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games saw him compete in just wheelchair racing.

Rainer founded his own company, Küschall AG, in 1978, to focus on designing better wheelchairs which allowed more independence. In 1985 he designed the first minimal open frame wheelchair chair, going on to design wheelchairs for users who had good upper body strength but had no control of their legs. His first prototype, known as the 'Competition', was a monotube-design wheelchair that weighed just 14kg, as opposed to 25kg of previous models, and was 40% smaller. The design was so popular due to not only its functionality, but also its beauty, and was later featured in the 1988 exhibition 'Designs for independent living' at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the first medical device in the collection. 


Recalling his journey to Stoke Mandeville, Rainer says 

I remember that journey so well because it was quite strange. I was carried onto an ordinary passenger plane from which they had removed several rows of seats so that I could be laid on the floor on a very thin mattress. ….. But then when we landed at London I remember being left on the plane while all the other passengers disembarked and looking out of the window. And it was so strange, because right opposite there was another plane loading up; and all around it were people in wheelchairs; and they were laughing and smiling in the snow. It was the very first time I had seen people in wheelchairs; and there were so many of them and they seemed happy. I remember thinking, what is this wheelchair city I have come to? I discovered afterwards that it was the British team going off to one of the winter wheelchair Games. But it was such a peculiar coincidence for me to see them and it felt like a good omen.

Rainer tells his own story here, talks about his early sport experiences and physiotherapist Maggie in Nothing can destroy the will of a real sportsman and marathon competition in Marathon Man.

Retirement as a Paralympic Athlete

Since retiring as a Paralympic athlete, Rainer took to motorsport after seeing a Cobra replica at the Geneva Motor Show in 2000, using a sip & puff control unit to change gears with his breath and a motorbike-style lever for braking and acceleration. In 2013, competing against non-disabled drivers, Rainer won his first race.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games 

For table tennis, Rainer won bronze at the Tel Aviv 1968, two gold and a bronze at the Heidelberg 1972 and a gold and a silver at the Toronto 1976 Paralympic Games. 

For wheelchair racing, he won two gold, two silver and a bronze at the Stoke Mandeville 1984, two silver and a bronze at the Seoul 1988 and five silver and a bronze at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Summer Games. A total of 20 Paralympic medals.

An interview with Rainer

August 2011

Rainer Küschall learned to play table tennis at Stoke Mandeville

So I went into a handicapped home. It was the only one in Switzerland at the time and it was the  other side of the country and a nine hour drive from my step-parents. Also it wasn’t just for disabled  people but included people with all different sorts of physical and mental handicap. I had my own  room there, a physiotherapist and a job paying 5 francs a week; and basically I lived there for the  next 12 years. Every day there I played table tennis. I saw it as my way out of the ghetto of disability, my ticket back into the world. I lived for the next game, the next tournament. I only thought about  training, playing, getting into the next ranking. I made it into the national team and then got to go to  international games.

Rainer switched from table tennis to wheelchair racing

In the 1970s, they had finally introduced a 60 metre race for quads at the wheelchair games. Before that there had been no races for quadriplegics. I first entered the 60 metres at Arnhem in 1980; but in that Olympics it didn’t work for me doing both table tennis and racing, so I dropped table tennis to concentrate on the racing and that became my new passion. I was training at my hospital in underground wards; racing up and down and crashing into the walls.

No More than 60 Metres

Guttmann maintained that quadriplegics shouldn’t race more than 60 metres because they would collapse if they tried to race a greater distance (part of the quadriplegic condition is an inability to raise your blood pressure).

What Guttmann said went at the time, so there was no race for quads greater than 60 metres. After a few years that attitude changed and they started to introduce greater race distances: 100, 200 and then the 400 and on up to 5,000 and eventually the Marathon. I could never power a good start, so I was never a sprinter so I ended up concentrating on the long distance races: the 5,000 and the Marathon. Heine Köberle was my hero at the time; he was the first quad athlete to move across from longer distances and start competing in the Marathon. So then I did that too; I got fascinated by the idea of the distance.

My Technique

The move into distance racing was partly determined by my condition. I didn’t have the muscles for power or for acceleration and because of my anaerobic condition caused by low blood pressure I couldn’t maintain effort for long periods. So I developed a technique that combined using a very small diameter push ring on my chair (which was a bit like using a very small back cog on a bike) with my interval technique for racing where I would push hard and then pause while waiting for the blood to flow back into my muscles and then push again. By using the high gearing I got from the small push ring I could achieve a very high speed and then it was less effort to maintain it during the intervals of recovery. This technique worked well for distance races where my speed allowed me to catch up on the dozen meters that I would typically be behind at the beginning of a race due to my slower starting and high gearing.

Download a pdf of the full interview here