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Sarah Reinertsen is most famous for being the first female leg amputee to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, which she did in 2005. But she’s also an Olympian, having competed in the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, in track and field. With paratriathlon recently becoming a Paralympic sport, triathlete.com sat down with Reinertsen to get her thoughts on it.
By Courtney Baird
Triathlete.com: What were your thoughts when paratriathlon became an Olympic sport?
Sarah Reinertsen: Well, I was thrilled—I was over the moon. We have been talking about this and doing a lot of back-end work and sort of lobbying and showing the numbers and recruiting more people and really trying to show the IPC [International Paralympic Committee] that we are a good contender. It was voted in, and I was thrilled. All the hard work came together. It just felt good. I’m excited to see what comes next. It was a huge hurdle in getting it in there, and it was rightfully entered, so I’m thrilled.
Triathlete.com: How involved were you in the process of getting triathlon in the Paralympics?
SR: I would actually say our biggest advocate would be Jon Beeson [the chairman of the USA Paratriathlon Committee]. I’m not going to take any of the credit away from him. We’ve certainly been writing letters when we could in support of things and trying to get people out to events and silly things like a Facebook campaign, getting everybody to get on board with backing the bid. This wasn’t just the past year we’ve been working on the things. There was a lot done by Jon Beeson, and a lot of triathletes like myself were involved in helping that happen. Jon really was our fearless leader. He’s an arm amputee and he’s been racing in triathlon since the 90s. I got into triathlon in 2003. I came from a background of having done a Paralympic sport in running. I got into triathlon locally at first, and [I eventually made] the world champs in the paratriathlon division. My first world champs were in 2003, and I met Jon there. He was competing. We had talked about one day triathlon being a Paralympic sport, but we were a far cry from it actually being part of it. Eight years later, it’s really happening.
Triathlete.com: 2016 is a ways away, but are you still thinking about going to the Paralympics in triathlon?
SR: I’m definitely toying with the idea. If I can stay healthy enough I think I’m going to make a go of it. I actually got to hang out with Simon Lessing a couple of months ago, and he’s [around] my age, and I was talking to him and it confirmed for me that, yeah, I can still be competitive … Maybe I’ll need to build in a little more recovery time as I get older, but still it’s possible. A lot of [pro] women in triathlon are in their 30s, and especially in longer distances, they are definitely in their 40s. I think it’s possible, but I just have to take it one year at a time.
Triathlete.com: You attempted the Ironman at Kona in 2004 but missed the bike cutoff. What went through your head at the time, and how did you go from that to becoming the first female leg amputee to finish Kona, in 2005?
SR: Well, in the moment after I didn’t finish—you’ve seen the footage—it was devastating. I was crying, and it was hard. I actually went back to the finish line, well after I went to medical and took care of a couple of things, and I watched everybody else finish. I thought, “I’m going to come back. I’m not going to just walk away and say oh well I missed the cutoff.” It was more fuel to the fire. I knew that it was possible—all these guys had done it. I felt like I was close. If it had been 15 seconds [that I missed the cutoff by] that might have messed with my head. But 10 minutes, I could live with that, and I realized I could overcome that. I just jumped in with more focus and determination. It made training, well, not easy, but it was easy because I was just so motivated. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. (I was working 40 hours a week at a medical company) and do my first workout and then be at the office and eating all day and leave work early or get a run in at lunch and stay late to get more work done, and I’d be in bed by 9 to do it all again the next day. I just was so focused, and it really came together, and I put it together the following year. I also had a year [at Kona] where we didn’t have as many winds. That certainly helps. A lot of what happens out there is luck, or what kind of day you have, or if your tire doesn’t pop. Some if it is just a lucky day, but not to take away from the fact that I was in good shape and put together a good swim and bike. My goal was 16:05 and I did it in 15:05. I had carried this keychain with 16:05 printed on it, and I carried it around all year. Oddly, I crossed the line in 15:05. You can’t plan anything when you’re out there, because it’s all about survival. But to finish exactly an hour early, I’m still blown away. That was that. It’s also cool to see that there are many more women [with disabilities] that are out now. Well, I wouldn’t say many, but we see more women with disabilities who are coming out and doing Ironman, and it’s cool and now we have it in paratriathlon. What I think is cool is paratriathlon is shorter distance, so it’s way more accessible. It’s much easier to train for a super-sprint triathlon than to take on 140 miles in one day. I think we’re going to see a lot more triathletes out there with disabilities making a go of it as a result [of triathlon becoming a Paralympic sport].
Triathlete.com: Pat Griskus was the first male leg amputee to do Ironman, and he did it way back in 1985. Why do you think there was so much time in between his accomplishment and when you finished Kona?
SR: I’ve thought about this before. I think there are maybe several factors. One being that I think there are statistically more male amputees than women amputees from more men being in motorcycle accidents or survivors of war. We saw a lot of amputees come from Vietnam, but most of them were men. Although, I’m not really sure. I also marvel at Pat Griskus doing the Ironman in 1985 because he did it on technology we don’t have today. He didn’t have a biking prosthetic leg or a fancy foot. He also just had a “stump sock” that they put on before they put on their prosthetic. I’m sure he had a bloody, blistery stump. I just marvel at what [he and other amputees] were able to do. Maybe women saw that and were like, I don’t know, “I don’t want to do that.” There really weren’t that many women even running marathons at the time. I think the jump from marathon to Ironman, it hadn’t been there. For me, that was part of the appeal. I kept meeting all these guys who could do it. After having done a couple marathons, I thought, I think a woman could do this. I had a notebook that I kept of Ironman articles as I started dreaming of doing this. I just collected the stuff, and Sports Illustrated did this spread—they did an entire spread on Ironman. And it was all women who did Ironman. I think they had a studio set up at the finish line, and they took pictures and each woman had a story underneath her. It was women in their twenties, thirties, forties. They were doctors, housewives, lawyers, whatever, and all different body types. They were different women but I just had this feeling like there was something missing there. No woman with a disability was in the mix. I thought, “I know it can be done and I am tough enough to do it.” Everybody likes the idea of climbing any Mount Everest. That was my Everest.
Triathlete.com: Some paratriathletes, such as Paul Martin, think that the Paralympics doesn’t get much play in the U.S. Do you agree and if so, why do you think this is the case?
SR: I also think maybe it’s true. I think it depends on your specific national federation. You know, as far as who gets the backing. The British paratriathlon squad is pretty strong, and they seem to support their athletes. I still think there are other countries that would argue the Paralympics is not big there. The Paralympics is the biggest in western countries, to be fair. Germany and England and America are places where you have access to prosthetics. This access is still an issue for some, even in some of the sports like running, but especially in the sport of triathlon, because you need access to much more equipment. If you are disabled, you need much more specialized equipment, and it’s much more expensive … But I don’t see the big disparity that maybe Paul feels. I feel like on the grand scale of things we have some pretty good support in America. We have it pretty good, but it could be better. Now that we’re formally part of the Paralympic program, we’re going to see more infrastructure from training camps access to subsidies to competitions. For me, I have sponsors and was funded on my own. Even if I didn’t have sponsors, I’d figure out a way. Some women like their designer purses. I’d rather spend my money on race wheels or entry fees. I’d be doing it whether I was sponsored or not. But I see more support from our U.S federation moving forward.
Triathlete.com: Is there anything you’d like to add?
SR: I will just say one of the things that’s really cool about triathlon is it has had a very long history of supporting the paratriathlon division. Unlike many other Paralympic sports, people with disabilities participate in the same world championships as their able-bodied counterparts. Track and field, for example, does not have same world championships for is disabled athletes. But paratriathletes, we go to the same world championships as age-groupers and pros. We might not compete on the same day, but we’re at the same world championships. We’re integrated and paratriathlon is one of the most progressive Paralympic sports—we’re more cutting-edge when you look at it from that perspective of inclusion. Even Ironman, just like with the Olympic-distance events, has welcomed athletes with disabilities to compete in the world championships in Kona.