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An athlete's mission

Sarah Reinertsen, a world-record runner, is inspiring others in the disabled community.

January 24, 2005|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Hunched over the handlebars of a stationary bicycle, Sarah Reinertsen vigorously pumps the pedals as a thin layer of sweat coats her back and shoulders. Her coach, evaluating her heart rate, checks the readout on the monitor and gradually increases the bike's resistance.

In a sports bra and shorts, Reinertsen looks like any other athlete in training, except that her right leg is made of flesh and bone and her left is made of metal and plastic. The heart rate test over, she towels off, unlocks the prosthetic foot from the bike's pedal, switches to a different artificial leg and walks out of the gym.

Reinertsen, 29, is a world record holder in marathon and half-marathon events for above-the-knee amputees. Currently she is on a mission -- well, many, actually -- this particular one having to do with finishing the Hawaii Ironman, considered the pinnacle of triathlons. In 2004 she was the first female amputee to compete in the race, but she was beset by high winds and bouts of nausea, ultimately slowing her bike course time and disqualifying her for the marathon portion.

She's determined to try again this October. "At first I thought maybe it was too hefty of a goal," she says over a bowl of soup at a nearby cafe. "But now I think, I get to do this again. There are triathletes who race their whole life and never get to do Hawaii, and the fact that I have an opportunity to do it again is special."

The attitude is typical of the vivacious Reinertsen, who, though petite, has a powerful, lean body. An amputee from the age of 7, she found her niche in sports early, over the years becoming an influential role model in the disabled community. Participation in high-profile events has given her the kind of visibility that many physically challenged athletes never get. Her story was among those highlighted in television coverage of the Ironman.

"Everybody has talked about how motivating and inspiring she's been," says Blair LaHaye, Ironman's public relations director. "She's got a great spirit, and people wanted to follow her journey. Viewers were really pulling for her."

Reinertsen was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a rare birth defect in which the portion of the thighbone closest to the hip is too short or not developed. Growing up on Long Island, she wore a brace until age 7, when her deteriorating leg had to be amputated. She was given a bulky wood composite prosthetic, and her parents insisted that she be treated like any other student -- no adaptive physical education classes, no special concessions. "I credit them a lot with that," she says. "That was incredibly important."

Unfortunately, gym teachers didn't always share that progressive view. The energetic Reinertsen often was left out of games or picked last for teams. Her frustrations eased at age 11, when she attended a track meet for kids with disabilities. She ran the 100-meter dash and won.

Reinertsen ran with a hop-skip gait until she met physical therapist David Balsley, who taught her how to run leg-over-leg and guided her toward better prosthetics. (Today her prosthetic running leg has a C-foot, the design based on the hind foot of a cheetah. The shape allows her to propel forward, and she describes the action as "bouncing on a pogo stick." The adjustable hydraulic knee is set to allow it to move more freely when running.)

Reinertsen and Balsley trained together three days a week, Balsley teaching her exercises to strengthen her left hip. "He'd put me on the treadmill and make me go as fast as I could," she recalls. "He really pushed me. There was none of this 'We're going to go easy on the disabled girl.' He always instilled in me that even the crazy things were possible."

She took to Balsley's no-limits approach to training. "I think Sarah likes to challenge herself," he says from his home in Manhattan. "She likes to see what's in there. Some people never flip the switch. They never go anywhere; they start and they stop. Sarah's definitely kicked it on."

Another of Reinertsen's mentors was Paddy Rossbach, an amputee marathoner from Connecticut who is president and chief executive of the Amputee Coalition of America, a nonprofit advocacy group. "She was tiny, with legs like two sticks of spaghetti," Rossbach recalls of the 11-year-old Reinertsen. "Sarah was always determined to do something, even with that clunky leg. She was very self-possessed, motivated and disciplined. There's a certain element in some people who lose a limb or other faculty that makes them want to show they can do everything."

Athletics gave the young Reinertsen confidence, an outlet for typical teenage angst and a way to deal with the atypical life she had. "I remember looking in the mirror," she says, "and going, 'Grrr! I'm going to be tough and strong, and who cares about' " the other kids at school?

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