Six years ago, Dr. Matteo Parsani, associate professor of applied mathematics and computational science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), experienced a life-changing incident that resulted in the loss of movement and sensation in the lower part of his body.
After years of close monitoring and successful rehabilitation, Dr. Parsani decided to carry out the first-ever coast-to-coast hand bike journey across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Inspired by the Crown Prince’s words, “We dream, and we achieve!”, Prof. Matteo Parsani is set to embark on a Herculean journey on December 17. This 30-day journey aims to promote physical activities and sports, raise awareness about people with disabilities, showcase KAUST research, and highlight the beauty of Saudi Arabia's regions. With a focus on the well-known trait of the Saudi people, "Hafawah" or welcoming and hospitable nature, the journey seeks to promote the importance of physical activity for a healthy lifestyle among both children and adults, both with and without disabilities and study the effect of intense physical exercise on the musculoskeletal system and mental health of people with limited mobility.
Dr. Parsani said "It's to change perceptions so people with disability, people like me, can live the lives they deserve to live.” He went on to say “I want to see a society and environment in Saudi where people with disabilities not only survive but also thrive. I think that's up to all of us to try to provide that and I hope this journey I am on will raise awareness of that.”
In order of location, Parsani will hand-cycle through Dammam, Riyadh, Qassim: Buraydah, Hail, AlUla, Red Sea Global, AlMadinah, Makkah, Jeddah and KAUST, encompassing a distance of over 3000 kilometers (150 kilometers per day).
Parsani's ambitious journey to traverse Saudi Arabia from its eastern to western regions will integrate the use of innovative products aimed at ensuring his safety and tracking his health and physical status in real time. The products — a helmet, jacket and shirt embedded with advanced biosensors — have been developed by a team of KAUST researchers and scientists within their cutting-edge lab facilities. For example, one sensor will monitor his heart rate, while another measures his dopamine levels, energy level, sweat secretion rate, body motion, and others.
Parsani said, “I believe in the power of personal stories to inspire change. My journey embodies the spirit of determination and resilience. I also see this as an opportunity to showcase Saudi Arabia's commitment to inclusivity and its promotion of adaptive sports and, in general, sports to enhance the quality of life.”
He added that the research aspect of the products is critical: “It will help us identify gaps and areas for improvement. We are looking forward to the valuable insights this journey will provide.”
Director of Valduce Hospital Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department, “Villa Beretta” Rehab Centre in Italy, Dr. Franco Molteni who has been monitoring and treating Parsani ever since the accident, highlighted the impact of physical activity on the professor's progress. "The last five years of Matteo's follow-up demonstrates that exercise can regenerate some connection between the brain and the muscles," he said.
Applauding Parsani's desire to pursue the journey, he said: "One aspect of this project is that people of determination demonstrate that even if someone has problems in terms of motor control, they are people who are determined to demonstrate that they can perform a lot of different things and sometimes more than people without motor impairment. I urge people with limited motor control to practice physical activity in the best way they can," he added.
The initiative is taking place with the support of several Saudi government entities and commercial sponsors, including the Ministry of Sport, Ministry of Interior, Saudi Embassy in the U.S., Authority for Persons with Disabilities (APD), AlBaik, Shusha Island, Red Sea Global, Ad Diriyah Gate Development Authority, the Royal Commission for AlUla, Saee, Saudi Sports for All Federation, Saudi Motorsport Company, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, Four Seasons, Montana Water, Baitna, Saudi Youth for Sustainability (SYS), as well as international entities such as McLaren Applied, McLaren F1, E1 Series, Sparco, Lucid, DMTC Agency, Villa Beretta Rehabilitation Research Innovation Institute, Solema, Politecnico di Milano, Viktor Elettromedicali & Physio, Partanna, LOVATO Electric and L.I.F.E(X10X)
In cooperation with APD, a total of 50 handbikes will be distributed to different groups, across the different cities Matteo will pass through