Sarah Reinertsen: No Moment or Motion Wasted

By Jodi Mills

In the hopes of encouraging Americans to get moving and get in shape, the average person in the United States is being prodded to reach the goal of walking 10,000 steps a day. To track their progress, people are persuaded to buy a pedometer, a device that in its simplest form records each step taken. Just imagine the device that Sarah Reinertsen would need to record her motion!

Sarah Reinertsen competes in the 2004 Ironman competition. Photo by Don Reinertsen.
Sarah Reinertsen competes in the 2004 Ironman competition. Photo by Don Reinertsen.

Much has been written about Reinertsen and her goal of competing in and completing the Hawaii Ironman triathlon World Championship. With the October 15 event approaching fast in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, she is more determined than ever to waste no motion. The Hawaii Ironman includes a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile run. Competitors have 17 hours to finish. Cutofftimes are also applied to the swim (2:20 after start of race) and the bike (10:30 after the start of race.) Obviously, unwavering determination is needed along with a grueling training regime to even consider competing in such an event. Reinertsen is up to the challenge.

At 30 years of age, Reinertsen has carved a niche for herself not only in the world of sports but also in the field of O&P. Her game plan didn't originally include becoming such a strong voice in the O&P arena. Born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), she began wearing a leg brace at 11 months of age to even the length of her legs. When she was seven, the decision was made to amputate the leg.

She was determined to fit in and be a part of typical childhood games and sports. Her parents gave her a bicycle, and after two or three weeks of attempting to learn to ride, she became discouraged, got off  that bike, and didn't get back on another one until she was 28 years old. At the age of 11, she began running track. She was in good company. Her dad was a road runner, participating in 5K and 10K races on the weekends.

Sarah Finds a Mentor

A friend told her dad that Paddy Rossbach, RN, president and CEO of Amputee Coalition of America (ACA), would be running in a race on Long Island. Accompanying him to that race, she was in awe as she watched Rossbach cross the finish line. It was lifechanging and inspiring for an 11-year-old girl with a prosthetic leg. Rossbach became a mentor from that day forward. Rossbach's "can do" attitude in all aspects of her life  gave confidence to the young Reinertsen.

Sarah Reinertsen poses with Peter Harsch, CP, in Hawaii for the Half Ironman
Sarah Reinertsen poses with Peter Harsch, CP, in Hawaii for the Half Ironman

School and sports played a large role in Rienertsen's life. During her high school years, she participated in the Paralympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain. Along with her studies, long distance running was her focus in college. In 1997 while attending George Washington University in Washington, DC, she ran the New York City Marathon.

Trekking to the other side of the country, she graduated with a masters degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Southern California (USC). A career reporting on the sports she loved was her goal.Heading back to the East Coast, she was employed by WeMedia Inc. A highlight of that job was covering the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Working on the syndicated sports magazine show US Olympic Gold was another achievement for Reinertsen.

Passion for Sports Grows

Reporting from the New York City Marathon for WNBC-NY reminded her of her love of competing. The reality was she wanted to participate fully in the sports she was reporting on. A triathlon was the ultimate goal. During her time in Brooklyn, New York, she decided she was going to try to learn to ride a bike again. Purchasing a used bike, she rigged it up in her apartment on a bike trainer, making it stationary. This enabled her to practice without the intimidation of being out in the public eye while she rode.She also joined a pool with the initial goal of staying for only ten minutes at a time. Slowly Reinertsen was proving to herself that she could indeed be a participant in a triathlon.

Back to West Coast

About this time she took a big leap of faith. A job opened up at the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), Del Mar, California, that would lure her back to the West Coast. Despite the fact that the job was not in the field of journalism and was a huge cut in pay, it was a cause she believed in. Moving that direction would also allow her to pursue her training in earnest for Ironman Hawaii.

Upon arrival in San Diego, California, she bought a real bike and began riding. Joining another pool, she received coaching every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 AM, which greatly helped her improve her stroke and build her endurance. She participated in her first triathlon a month and a half after she moved to San Diego. Reflecting on that first race, Reinertsen says, "I did the breast stroke the whole way-- the waves in the ocean were very scary!" However the experience only inspired her to press on and led her to her first Ironman Hawaii attempt in 2004.

Another career move was on the horizon. Ossur North America, Aliso Viejo, California, invited her to interview for a job as marketing manager. The company's motto is "Life  Without Limitations"--could there be a better fit for Reinertsen? She accepted the position and is now responsible for all the logistical details for the many trade shows the company regularly attends. Additional responsibilities include working on Ossur sponsorships as well as giving away product and money--an aspect of the job that delights her.

Giving Back, Helping Others

Having gone to graduate school and deliberately pursuing a course that didn't highlight the fact that she was an amputee was something on which Reinertsen prided herself. However, she has found that her involvement with both CAF and Ossur has led to great things. She continues to be a spokesperson for CAF, volunteering her time to attend fundraisers; being a part of the "Catch a Rising Star" program, which provides sports equipment and conducts clinics for amputees; and teaching spin classes just for amputees. All these are ways in which she is giving back to the O&P community. She recalls how important having a mentor was for her. That is an obstacle many amputees deal with--the difficulty of finding a mentor who can impart the knowledge they need to get the most out of life. Unlike when she was a young girl, there are now organizations ready to support amputees, such as CAF and ACA.

Knowledge is power, and she emphasizes the need to impart that knowledge to all amputees so they can put it to use in their dayto- day lives. Going to events like the annual San Diego triathlon, sponsored by CAF, is something she encourages amputees to do. She urges amputees to connect, ask questions of other amputees, find out information, and meet people in similar situations. She highly recommends being active and involved in sports, which leads to healthier living, both mentally and physically.

Reinertsen is also involved in legislative initiatives to eliminate the insurance caps. The changing face of insurance coverage is an everpresent problem in O&P. Serving on the Board of Directors of the ACA has allowed her to work on the prosthetic parity campaign at the state level. Fundraising is also being done to help support that initiative, along with the ACA's new "Because We Care" campaign.

She praises the many manufacturers who support this legislation, along with campaigning and fundraising. The caps on prosthetic coverage are a hardship for the average amputee who can't afford a $40,000 leg every couple of years. Posing recently for an ad campaign wearing a prosthetic limb from her childhood, Reinertsen illustrates the ridiculous policy of "one limb in a lifetime." Enabling a larger number of amputees to have access to the technology being developed is a huge hurdle, but one that she hopes will be overcome in the months and years to come.

Looking Forward

As October 15 approaches, Reinertsen continues to focus on the task at hand: completing Ironman Hawaii. Her friends and coworkers are very supportive, in particular, Peter Harsch, CP, clinical prosthetist at Ossur. Harsch is also in training for Ironman Hawaii, so you can often find them on their bikes, vigorously preparing for the event. She also credits her family for always being there for her. Their continuous, unwavering support of her need to excel at whatever she does has helped her to succeed. Her choices have often forced her to sacrifice being at family gatherings, weddings, etc. The understanding and unequivocal love of her family is something she wishes for everyone in pursuit of a dream.

In each part of her life, Reinertsen looks forward to the challenges she faces. There have been disapointments, setbacks, and sometimes sadness, but she is determined not to waste a moment of the life  she has been given. It is truly inspiring to speak with her and to see her devotion. The O&P community can count on Sarah Reinertsen to waste no motion, but make each day an event worth participating in!