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Meet The World Cup's Exoskeleton Miracle Athlete

Juliano Alves Pinto hadn't walked since a 2006 car accident. Then, just a few days ago, the world watched as he wore a mind-controlled exoskeleton to make the opening kick of the World Cup in Brazil.

Juliano Alves Pinto during the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony.
Juliano Alves Pinto during the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony.
Ramon Barbosa Franco

SAO PAULO — Before standing in front of the entire world to make the first kick of the FIFA World Cup at last week's televised opening ceremony, 29-year-old Juliano Alves Pinto had not walked since Dec. 3, 2006.

That evening, the car in which he was riding home from a party overturned just a few kilometers away from its destination. Pinto lost his older brother and the use of his legs in the accident.

In an interview with Folha de São Paulo, Pinto, who is now a wheelchair-racing athlete, talks about the mind-controlled robotic suit that allowed him to stand up and walk for the first time in more than seven years.

FOLHA: How did you come to take part in the World Cup’s opening ceremony?
JULIANO ALVES PINTO: Although I live in a small town called Gália, 400 kilometers from São Paulo, I’ve been a patient at the Association for the Assistance to Children with Deficiencies for seven and a half years, since my accident. In January, I got an invitation to take part in a selection. They were looking for somebody my size, my weight and with my disability. In total, 10 candidates took part in the process, but in the end they chose me. And only then did they tell me that it was in fact to make the first kick of the competition, wearing the exoskeleton developed by the Walk Again Project.

Did the exoskeleton really make you feel like you were walking again?
In the Itaquerão stadium, two of my dreams came true: to see the World Cup kickoff and to walk again. When I was a child, I used to play soccer a lot, and I always dreamed of attending a World Cup game. The exoskeleton receives information from the brain and transforms it into movements. This was the first prototype, which means that the World Cup opening ceremony wasn’t the end of the exoskeleton, but only the beginning. There is more to do, but the symbolic kickoff marked the opening of a new era in science.

What thoughts were going through your head at that time?
In that moment, I really had the sensation I was walking again. What I was feeling was beyond words. I was proud to represent millions of people who suffer like me and who are paralyzed. Walking is easy for most. It’s a natural thing. But for somebody who lost all ability to move his legs more than seven years ago, that moment really was special.

Several people have criticized neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis (the leader of the Walk Again Project). What do you think of those critics?
I think they are laypersons as far as the project is concerned. It’s one thing to criticize the project from the inside, but it’s another to do it when you’re an outsider. The project was born to open up new possibilities, to give back the ability of leg movement to people who are now in a wheelchair.

Would you change your wheelchair for the exoskeleton?
The exoskeleton I used was only a prototype. New, improved versions will come. But in the future, yes, I think I would switch to an exoskeleton. The equipment isn’t uncomfortable. You don’t feel any electric shock.

You’re a para-athlete. Do you think you’ll be at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016?
I’m a wheelchair racer. I train every week. But I still don’t have a sponsor. The equipment is expensive, and the subsidy I get every month is unfortunately not enough to cover all the expenses.


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