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Sarah Reinertsen and Peter Harsch during The Amazing Race
Sarah Reinertsen and Peter Harsch during The Amazing Race
photo: courtesy of Sarah Reinertsen

Sarah Reinertsen: No Plans to Slow Down

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Role model. Inspiration. Competitor. If you’re looking for an athlete who embodies these qualities, look no further than Sarah Reinertsen.

Born with a bone-growth disorder that led to the amputation of her left leg at the age of 7, Reinertsen has never once slowed down. At a young age she started running, and on the track she set world records in her division and traveled to Barcelona for the 1992 Paralympic Games. Running had been easy to embrace, but after completing seven marathons, Reinertsen needed a new challenge.

Triathlon proved to be the outlet she was looking for, even though she wasn’t familiar with cycling or swimming. She was inspired by performances in Ironman Hawaii by the likes of Jim MacLaren, Paul Martin and Pat Griskus, who competed in Kona with prosthetics. “I just thought if those guys could do it, maybe one day so could I,” Reinertsen said.

She started her triathlon career in 2003 with a sprint-distance race and only six months later she was en route to New Zealand to participate in her first ITU Paratriathlon World Championship. Conquering sprint and Olympic-distance events meant there were still longer distances to pursue, like the Ironman races she had watched on TV as a child, and Reinertsen was determined to make it to Kona and succeed. After missing the bike cutoff by 15 seconds in 2004, she returned to Hawaii in 2005 to become the first female with a prosthetic leg to ever finish the Ironman World Championship, crossing the finish line in 15 hours, 5 minutes.

“I like to challenge myself to push the boundaries,” said Reinertsen. “I like the long and the short races, and I’ve enjoyed doing some of the Olympic-distance races because I can find the time to balance training and the other pursuits in life.”

In fact, Reinertsen’s Ironman finish and win at the 2007 ITU Paratriathlon World Championship in Hamburg, Germany, are not her only claims to fame. She made history in 2006 as the first person with a physical challenge to compete on the popular CBS TV show “The Amazing Race,” finishing seventh overall, and the same year she won the ESPY for Best Female Athlete with a Disability. Just last year, she was featured in “ESPN The Magazine’s” body issue, and she published a book highlighting her journey as an above-the-knee amputee in her book, “In a Single Bound: Losing My Leg, Finding Myself, and Training for Life.”

“Sarah summed it up in an interview once that ‘everyone wants to do something extraordinary,’ and she does it, and people can see that,” said Peter Harsch, a long-time friend of Sarah’s and the former director of the USA Paratriathlon National Team. “When you have the attitude that you can do anything and you can live life without limitations, it’s hard to not be motivated and not want to do a little better. That’s the role of people like Sarah, and many other incredible paratriathletes. They have the ‘can-do’ attitude.”

Reinertsen is well known for sharing her positive attitude and passion for life with everyone around her. When she finds the time between her training and racing schedules, she is a motivational speaker. Reinertsen also serves as a spokesperson with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which works to provide the funding needed to support challenged athletes with equipment, competition expenses, programs and events. She promotes a lifestyle that encourages people with challenges to be active and pursue their dreams, much like she has set out to pursue her own.

“Really, a role model is an understatement for Sarah,” Harsch said. “I know a lot of these kids from working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation and working with their parents, and knowing what Sarah brings to the table is priceless. Sarah brings good to the world and helps many, many people – more than anybody could ever imagine.”

Over 750 triathletes are active in the paratriathlon movement today, representing over 40 countries worldwide. Reinertsen is joined by 13 other elite paratriathletes on the 2010 USA Paratriathlon National Team, which will compete in a series of races around the U.S. before heading to Budapest, Hungary, in September for the 2010 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships.

Even on tough days, Reinertsen embraces a mantra to fear less and live more. “I believe that fear is the thing that stops so many of us from trying new things,” she says. “And for me I had to face a lot of fears to become a triathlete. A fear of bike riding – especially with one leg – balancing and grabbing the water bottle; the fears I had in swimming of diving in big ocean waves. If I didn’t face those fears, I wouldn’t have experienced the best moments in my life. I’ve lived a juicier and more rewarding life by pushing myself to do some of those things that scare me just a little bit.”

summer 2010 magazine coverLindsay Wyskowski is the content coordinator at USA Triathlon. Contact her at lindsay.wyskowski@usatriathlon.org.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of USA Triathlon Life magazine, which hits members’ mailboxes between July 15-20.

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