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photo: Carlos Cunha
Paratriathletes Applaud Paralympics Announcement
Sarah Reinertsen has completed the Hawaii Ironman in Kona and dozens of other triathlons.
But the 35-year-old athlete, who has been missing her left leg below the knee since the age of 7, has never had the opportunity to compete in the Paralympics as a triathlete.
That’s no longer the case now that the governing board of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) voted to add paratriathlon for the 2016 Paralympic Games, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro.
Triathlon was one of two sports, along with paracanoe, chosen among a field of seven during a committee meeting prior to the opening ceremony of the 2010 Asian Para Games on Dec. 11.
“Triathlon belongs in the Paralympics,” Reinertsen said. “Not only does it include three Olympic sports – swimming, biking, and running – but triathlon has a long history of supporting athletes with disabilities.”
Triathlon is one of few sports in which physically challenged athletes compete alongside able-bodied individuals, lining up for races ranging from sprint distance triathlons to Ironman.
The sport is especially appealing to physically challenged athletes looking to prove to themselves and perhaps others that they can compete in races that few able-bodied people attempt.
That’s why many believe that the Paralympics, by including a sport featuring challenged athletes who compete in mainstream events, will raise the awareness of the accomplishments of all disabled athletes, as well as provide an additional international platform for triathlon.
“I got into triathlon shortly after I lost my leg to show that I still was a physically able person and that I could compete and do well,” says Paul Martin, who after losing his left leg five inches below the knee following a car accident has completed 10 Ironman triathlons. “It’s a sport that will really help put the Paralympics on the map, perhaps as much as any sport has thus far.”
Martin competed at the Paralympics in cycling in 2000 in Sydney and in 2004 in Athens, where he won two medals. He took up cycling before triathlon in part because triathlon was not a Paralympic sport.
Martin says he hopes to compete in Rio but recognizes that at 43 he might be hard pressed to qualify in 2016, when he’ll be pushing 50. If nothing else, he’s looking forward to seeing fellow triathletes enjoy the thrill of the Paralympic Games.
“It’s very competitive, but it’s not cutthroat,” says Martin, who holds the Iroman leg amputee word record (10:09:07). “Everyone is there to win, of course, but mostly it’s people just hoping that everyone has a great day.”
The Paralympics, held immediately after the Summer Olympic and Winter Olympic Games, has grown from a small gathering of British World War II veterans in 1948 to one of the biggest events in sports. A total of 3,951 athletes from 146 countries competed at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.
Though triathlon is new to Paralympics, its three disciplines are not. Swimming, cycling, and track and field events have long histories with the Paralympics, which also includes sports such as archery, fencing, and soccer. There also are wheelchair versions of basketball, rugby, and tennis.
Paralympic athletes compete by gender in six categories: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, wheelchair, visually impaired, and “les autres,” which is French for “the others” and refers to conditions that do not fall within the other five classifications.
Within the six categories, athletes compete according to level of impairment. Leg amputees, for instance, are grouped as below-the-knee or above-knee.
Triathlon debuted as an Olympic sport in Sydney in 2000 and, along with paracanoe, brings the total number of Paryalympic sports to 22. The Rio Paralympics will take place from Sept. 7-18, 2016.
Brazil has a strong triathlon presence, hosting five XTERRA series events in 2010, along with Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events. With ocean swims and breathtaking scenery for the bike and run, it’s a popular travel triathlon destination.
That will be a change of scenery for Sandy Dukat, 38, who had her right leg amputated above the knee at the age of 4. An accomplished triathlete, she’s perhaps best known for winning medals in alpine skiing at the Winter Paralympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 and in Turin in 2006.
“I know the value of competing in the Paralympic Games so to think of another sport added to the Games is overwhelming to think about,” Dukat says. “This gives another group of athletes a chance to demonstrate their athletic abilities. “
Reinertsen, who in 2005 became the first woman to complete the Hawaii Ironman on an artificial leg, competed in the women’s 100 meters at the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona. The world record holder going into the Games, she tripped in the semifinals and did not reach the finals.
“On a personal level it would be a wonderful opportunity to get a second chance to bring home a medal,” says Reinertsen, who like Martin wonders if she’ll be too old to qualify in 2016. “But the bigger picture is that this will provide a wonderful opportunity for athletes with disabilities.”