Sarah’s Quest to Become an Ironman
If you had seen nine-year old Sarah Reinertsen on her pretty blue Schwinn with a banana seat, you wouldn’t have guessed you were looking at a future Ironman record breaker. She was just learning how to keep the bike balanced while riding down the street as her father let go of the back of her bike. Two years earlier, she had her left leg amputated above the knee and now she wore a prosthetic leg that she nicknamed her “Barbie leg.” It was bad enough trying to keep her left foot on the pedal with the toe strap, but keeping the momentum going with just her right leg was frustrating. It was especially humiliating for her when she couldn’t keep up with the younger kids on a slightly sloped road and she decided she couldn’t live with that disgrace. It would be a long time before she got back on another bike.
Fortunately, Sarah found running. With a great supportive launch from veteran marathoner and amputee runner Paddy Rossbach, Sarah found her athletic calling at a young age. She received the support and coaching she needed and a special new prosthetic leg called a “Flex Foot” which stores kinetic energy like a spring and allowed Sarah to run and jump. She trained hard as a young teen. At age 13, she set a world record time in the 100m run for amputee athletes and continued to compete throughout her teen years, competing in national and international meets as well as qualifying and going to the Paralympic Games in Spain at age 16.
During her senior year of college, she transformed herself into a distance runner, taking on a 5K, then a 10K and finally, the NYC marathon. She learned that as an amputee runner, she had to train differently than the typical Runner’s World training plans might dictate. Instead of miles, she had to focus on time and get used to the hours she would spend on her prosthetic. As the years went by she did more marathons and half marathons and becoming faster as she became more experienced. But in the back of her mind Sarah had a plan: she wanted to take on the Hawaii Ironman. She still remembers the day she first saw the 1992 Ironman World Championships on TV when Jim MacLaren, a below-the-knee amputee, broke the new world record for a triathletes with a prosthetic. No female athlete with a prosthetic had ever completed the Ironman. Sarah wanted to be the first.
Becoming an Ironman
Ten years later, she got more serious about doing just that. The marathon part of the Ironman she had down. (She holds the world record in the half marathon (2:12) and the marathon (5:27) for above-knee amputee women.) But she hadn’t been on a bike for 17 years and as far as swimming was concerned, she could tread water and swam a little, but that was it.
There was a pool not far from her Brooklyn apartment where she bought a membership. Yet it was one thing to take off her prosthetic leg and jump in the pool in front of her friends or family and it was still another to do it in front of complete strangers. It took six months to get the courage to move past her self-consciousness before she finally jumped into the pool and swim a few laps.
To do a triathlon, you gotta have a bike. She bought a used mountain bike for $75 and went to the local bike shop for help. How was she going to ride the darn thing? She ended up buying a CycleOps bike trainer and set the bike up in her apartment. It was actually the perfect way to acclimate her body to spending more and more time cycling. She wouldn’t even start riding outside until she moved to Southern California and bought her first road bike, a nice women’s specific bike.
Sarah did her first triathlon in 2003 and then qualified for the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona HI at a ½ Ironman in 2004. The swim portion of her first Ironman wasn’t too bad and she started out on the cycling leg feeling good. Then the brutal and capricious winds of Kona pushed against Sarah the majority of her 112 mile ride, but it was the nausea and vomiting that dealt her the final blow and she failed to make the time cut-off for her cycling leg. The big fat D.N.F. was demoralizing, but she made a MacArthur-like promise to return.
She knew 2005 was going to be a different year. She trained with her super-focused determination. Cannondale made her a custom-made tri bike that was dubbed “Unfinished Business” because that is what the Ironman would be until she completed it. Although her job meant that she traveled a lot, she brought her bicycle with her to keep up the training wherever she was. She also spent time in Kona riding, swimming and running the course. Her goal was an ultimate dream finish time of 16:05 for the Kona Ironman. She was well-prepared and actually enjoyed herself. She had a great 2.4 mile swim, then a good ride with affectionate breezes instead of aggressive winds and capped off her Ironman with a good marathon run. Her time was better than she dreamed: 15:05!
Her Cannondale bike “Unfinished Business” was re-dubbed “Finished Business” and she keeps it as her own memento/museum piece for she will go down in the record books as the first woman amputee to finish the Ford Ironman World Championship. Then Sarah became better known to television audiences in 2006 for taking part in The Amazing Race which included her scaling the Great Wall of China. In the end, it wasn’t the physical challenges that knocked Sarah and her partner out of the race, but a navigational challenge in Kuwait.
Sarah continues to do triathlons and races and gives motivational speeches. She continues to give back to the sport and reaches out to mentor others with physical challenges. As an advocate for other disabled children and adults, she is concerned that they will not be able to get the prosthetics for running nor sports wheelchairs for basketball or tennis. She has worked in the past for the non-profit Challenged Athletes Foundation and she continues to be an advocate and spokesperson for it. Most of all, Sarah continues to be an inspiration and mentor for athletes of all abilities.
I met Sarah around March of 2006 in Kona where she was engaged to speak. I was absolutely inspired by her life story as well as her narrative of how she came back to Kona to complete the Ironman after having a very discouraging DNF the previous year. I enjoyed running with her in a 5K the next day and getting to know her better over the next couple days. It has been a few years since I first met Sarah but during our phone conversation I remembered why I was inspired by her story the first time and even more now.
Her next great adventure? Sarah is engaged to be married on 10/10/10. Sarah, congratulations & best wishes!
(To go to Sarah’s website click here)