Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Following Her Dreams

Published: March 11, 2009

EAST TAMPA - The life of Sarah Reinertsen has been a series of trials and triumphs. Fortunately for her, the feats far override the failures.

The New York City native likes to tell people she was born "different" 33 years ago.

When just a toddler she was diagnosed with a left leg deformity called proximal femoral focal deficiency, a condition in which her left leg was markedly shorter than her right leg. She wore a stiff leg brace until age 7, when her parents opted for surgery to amputate her leg.

From that point on she strived to be just like her friends. She was a Brownie, an outstanding student and tried hard to compete in sports alongside her classmates.

Regardless, she remembers always being the last person to be picked for a team and still finds it hard to erase the memory of being told by her soccer coach to kick a ball against a wall alone while her peers played the game.

Reinertsen's self-esteem soared and her future was formed, however, at age 11 when she was introduced to track and field sports specifically designed for those who are physically challenged. For the first time in her life she learned how it felt to experience the joy of victory.

At 13 she broke the 100-meter world record for female above-the-knee amputees.

"That was really neat because after my amputation my doctors told me I'd never run again," said Reinertsen, as she spoke recently at the All People's Life Center to a group of disabled athletes who are members of BlazeSports Tampa Bay.

Reinertsen, who serves as a national spokeswoman for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, was invited by the Florida chapter of the nonprofit organization that raises money to help people with physical disabilities pursue active lifestyles through fitness and competitive sports.

"I learned from a very young age that for me to keep up I've always had to be tougher than the rest," Reinertsen told the mainly female audience bent on her every word and movement as she strolled back and forth across the gym floor.

Reinertsen shared with them the fact that as a young teenager she began to seriously test her talent and tenacity.

She went on to take part in other competitions that landed her a spot as the youngest member of the 1992 U.S. Paralympics team at age 17 and the chance to compete against other world-class disabled athletes in Barcelona, Spain.

Butsomething unexpected occurred.

"Just as I left the starting line at the start of the race I tripped. I was devastated," Reinertsen said. "I quit. I thought what was the point of trying?"

So, she enrolled at George Washington University and it wasn't long before she was aware of how tight her clothes had become and how sluggish she felt.

During that time she happened to watch a TV program about the Ironman Triathlon World Championship race - a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

"I wanted to do that," she said. "But I didn't know how to ride a bike, I couldn't swim and I could only run two laps around the track."

She began running in marathons and even completed a New York City Marathon. She took out a membership at a local pool and purchased swimming gear. But it was six months before she went in the water due to her embarrassment of having to remove the prosthetic leg in the presence of others.

Reinertsen purchased a used mountain bike but, too afraid to ride it in the New York City traffic, enlisted the advice of a bike store clerk for riding lessons. When that idea failed she decided to buy a stationary cycle she could train on at home.

For her graduate studies she moved to Southern California where she bought her first "real" bike and in 2003 she participated in her first triathlon.

"I was ecstatic," Reinertsen said. "When I crossed that finish line I finally became a triathlete."

Another First

Then, in 2004, she chartered into territory where no woman amputee had been before - the Ironman championship in Kona, Hawaii. However, she was disqualified when she failed to meet the bike cut-off time by 15 minutes.

She returned the following year and completed the race in a little more than 15 hours.

"Whatever it is that your want to do, hold onto your dreams and with dedication and perseverance you will get there," she told the audience.

Reinertsen was also the first female amputee to compete on the CBS show "The Amazing Race" in 2006.

"I still want to ride a bike across the U.S. That's a goal of mine before I die," said Reinertsen, who was also in town to compete in the Gasparilla Marathon.

Vicki Hayes, the mother of BlazeSports athlete Karlee Hayes, 17, who has cerebral palsy, was impressed with Reinertsen's achievements at such a young age.

"It goes to show you how strong the human spirit can be," she said. "It shows kids that have a disability they can do whatever they set out to do."

Wheelchair-bound Karlee also liked the presentation.

"It's different from anything I ever heard," said the Gaither High 10th-grader.

Kelly Parker of Lakeland, the mother of 8-year-old leg amputee Casey, thought Reinertsen's message contained a lot of good food for thought.

"It was emotional, inspiring and motivational," Parker said. "It also showed me I need to back off a little."

"We're learning more and more every day and now we've seen her Reinertsen," said Casey's dad, Michael. "It gives us hope for Casey."

Reinertsen's autobiography, "In a Single Bound," will be out in September.

Reporter Joyce McKenzie can be reached at (813) 865-4849.

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