Passing the Torch: The Marty Ball Legacy
The man, the myth, the legend … if you are new to the community you may not know him, to the rest of us he is the pillar of leadership and advocacy…
Marty Ball is a celebrity in the manual wheelchair world, but you would never guess that when you meet the humble, Motion Composites’ brand ambassador. A natural born athlete, Marty broke down barriers in the sports world by completing full marathons in a wheelchair before it was even allowed for people with disabilities to compete in them. Since then, he can be found at community events; if you have attended an Abilities Expo over the past 20 years, you may have spoken to him without even knowing it!
Marty Ball participating in a marathon.
His lifetime achievements are second to none and we strongly suggest to our viewers to get familiar with them. If you missed out on his story, John E. Phillips from the Comfort Medical Publications has a great article that shares Marty’s historic feats, check it out here.
As if this is not enough of a reason to love the guy, we spoke to people who have known him for years an can vouch for his character and legacy:
“Marty is a valued friend, and mentor who always seems to be in a good mood, with one exception; when he sees a person in a less than optimal wheelchair setup, it really bothers him because he knows the short—and long-term consequences this causes. I give him credit for coining a phrase that I often borrow, ‘Think of a wheelchair is a mobility prosthetic for your butt, the fit and performance should be as precise as an artificial leg.’
I could listen to his stories about the cool and eclectic experiences he has had all day, legendary wheelchair race stories ranging from the Boston Marathon to racing in Japan, the inside scoop of introducing the leading edge of innovation of the top active lightweight wheelchair companies for over four decades; then a shift to his younger days, casually mentioning what it was like to chat with John Wayne (Yes, THE John Wayne) back when Marty was working as a bell hop at a hotel in Mexico.
His passion for raising educating clinicians about prescribing the best chair for their clients saw him on the road, and in the air constantly, so much so that I always enjoyed phoning him and starting our call with ‘So, what part of the planet are you on today?’. I used to joke that he likely had enough frequent flyer miles to book a trip on the space shuttle.”
Bob Vogel (left), Marty Ball (center) and Tony Persaud (right) at the Abilities Expo 2018.
Since the pandemic, we have not seen much of Mr. Ball, so we decided to do a catch up with him to see how life has been, how he spends his days, and what his plans are for the future; the tides are shifting from being the out-in-front leader to the behind-the-scene mentor to new community leaders and Marty is beyond happy adjusting to his new role:
Marty Ball: I took the decision to move into an assisted living facility; there were certain things I couldn’t do alone anymore, so I decided it was best to be around people that could help. If you don’t know, assisted living can get quite expensive (I was there for a year) so my son, David, offered to help with my living circumstances, so I moved close to him in South Carolina. (Laughing) I am not the biggest fan of the weather here, it’s cold and rainy right now, that’s the reason I was living in Florida, sunshine year around!
MB: Well, it’s fine, I do all I can, a lot of people call and contact me one way or another … for friends and other reasons. I keep in touch with the industry and help when I can. Many people reach out regarding new products and for advice. The only real thing that has changed is the pricing (laughing). No, but seriously, technology has advanced a lot as well. I also try my best to stay in touch with therapists. I was always finicky about fitting chairs; I think the therapists really try to hammer that part home. Dealers are in a hurry and therapists take their time, it is not a process to be rushed and I try to make the dealers aware of the importance of this step in the process.
MB: Don’t rush through the process, listen to your therapists. There is a lot less experience in fitting and they tend to forget a lot of the small, important things. I want them to think and talk like a (wheelchair) user, there is not a general one size fits all, each user is unique. If they can think like this, the industry will be a better place in the long run. I see a lot of end users not properly fitted and it drives me crazy. The user needs more instruction once the fitting is done; unfortunately, they are missing items because of the lack of detail sometimes (not all the time).
MB: I try to point out certain habits that I see that are not correct, seat and back angle is such a big aspect of a chair and it is overlooked. I want them to see that it’s a team effort between professionals and their end—users; fitting needs to work with you not against you. Therapists are better than they used to be and there is still room to improve. Dealerships are starting to adapt to this mind set as well, a real focus should be geared towards this by our community.
MB: My friend Mala, she is the best therapist and dealer representative I know, she asks the right questions and offers multiple solutions to the dealer. She is in Massachusetts and the Boston area. She has several hospitals in the area that count on her. She is good at what she does! You can find her at almost any big industry event; if you see her, tell her Marty says, “Hi!”.
MB: I am retired now; I love it, but I do miss the community. I plan to visit more tradeshows as long as they are close to home; travel is not as easy at my age. I am getting older, and travel has become a bit more of a task. I try to help where I can and maintain friendships/relationships throughout the industry.
MB: No, not at the moment, I am new here (South Carolina area) and have had some medical issues, but I do plan to extend out and see with the locals here.
MB: If there is anything local with the Abilities Expo circuit or anything around here. I love going to their events. There should be more in my area; North Carolina and South Carolina areas are missing that aspect of our industry … in-person events.
Marty Ball sharing his knowledge on Motion Composites wheelchairs at the Abilities Expo in 2019.
MB: Oh my gosh! There are sooooo many, it’s hard to settle on 1 or 2. I traveled a great deal as an athlete which gave me opportunity to see what’s going on in the world in the wheelchair business. Japan stuck out a lot because I visited so many times, all the chairs there were so small compared to us in the west (laughing). Not a lot of people could fit in my chair, it was very fun/eye opening. I guess educating people about wheelchair technology across the globe was one of my favorite memories.
MB: As an athlete I have done a lot of things, marathons (before marathons could be done in a chair) and I was winning (laughing)! Competition and winning was super nice to help spread awareness of quality products and informing the community of the evolving materials and technology that people didn’t even know was possible. It put me in the face of the end user, which is who the industry should be listening too. The more they know, the more they can demand a superior product.
MB: I want to use this platform to get the word out on Carbon Fiber and their (Motion Composites) products. I like to do more for them to help voice the end user of this quality product. Being an old man now it is harder with traveling and to educate but anything close to home I can help. I would like to continue my friendship with this company and all the fantastic people working there. They really care and listen to the end user needs!
MB: The material is so great. Again, a lot of people need to know more about Carbon Fiber! It rides better than metal (to me) its dampening aspects make it the smoothest riding chair in the industry. Too many people are afraid of it because of its past and its feel by touch (like plastic) but it’s not true. I want to be more of an advocate to encourage people to adapt to Carbon Fiber products. BUT IT HAS TO BE DONE CORRECTLY… Motion Composites takes the time in the research and development stages of their products to make sure it is done perfectly.
Marty Ball with his dog Cody.
MB: Carbon Fiber, made the correct way, and prescribing the chairs correctly. Seating is so specialized now, I think the therapists and dealers need to understand this and start to learn more about the materials chairs are being made of.
MB: Oh my gosh, I always liked traveling but it’s such a hard thing now. I don’t really have one thing specific thing in mind, more like many. But I am resting and enjoying my social life with Cody (my dog). I love bumping into people and adapting to this new place at my new home.
As you can see, Marty is better than ever adapting to his new role and new home. If you are ever in the South Carolina area, you can find him sipping white wine, spending time with his family and dog, Cody, and advocating for a better future to all end-users.
Motion Composites would like to thank Mr. Ball for taking the time to talk to us today and wish him the best of luck in his future as a wheelchair industry mentor! Thank you, Marty, we all miss you very much and hope to see or talk to you soon!