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29th November 2016

The para-triathlete with a mission

Ironman triathlete and Paralympian Sarah Reinertsen has tried out a lot of legs in her lifetime.

Having used everything from a hollow wooden one with two hinges when she had her leg amputated above the knee at age seven, to the state-of-the-art carbon fibre running blades she uses for competition these days, the 41-year-old American is nothing short of an expert on the topic.

Sarah was born with a bone growth disorder that, left alone, would have resulted in the affected leg being significantly shorter than her other leg. “When I was seven I chose to have the amputation so I could take advantage of the medtech that was out there,” she explains to This Is Medtech. Though she was grateful for her first prosthetic wooden leg, she notes it was “nothing you’d associate with the word ‘technology’.”

Getting involved in sports opened Sarah’s eyes to the world of prosthetics. She discovered other materials like carbon fibre and special plastics, as well as comfortable liners made from silicone and aloe vera, which transformed her life. “I wouldn’t have plugged into this had I not met other amputees doing athletics,” she notes.

Sarah explains that today she uses various prosthetics that are designed for the specific activity she’s doing. “I now have a closet full of legs that allow me to do different types of sport,” she says. “I have legs that I use to exercise, play and compete. Ultimately, that leads to better health.”

But that wasn’t always the case. “I didn’t get my first running leg until my fourth marathon. I was doing them in the best carbon fibre walking foot available, but it wasn’t until the fourth that there was one designed for long-distance running,” she comments.

The three–time world champion in ITU short course triathlon and winner of the 2006 Ironman 70.3 world championships (among many other athletic achievements), is aware that she’s been very lucky. “All of this [technology] means nothing if you don’t have access,” she points out. “I’ve had access to the technology and I don’t take that lightly. It can really impact a person’s quality of life.”

This is why she’s intent on giving back. Among other things, Sarah works with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which supports athletes with disabilities. She also runs free mobility clinics where amputees are taught how to run “because that’s not always covered in physiotherapy. They teach you how to walk, but what if you have to run out of a building or catch a bus?”

In addition, working with kids is something Sarah is passionate about. “What’s most exciting is that we see more inclusion in schools. When I was young, I was given a soccer ball to play with while the other kids were doing sport. Not because they were cruel, but they just didn’t know what to do.”

Despite this positive shift, Sarah believes that more still needs to be done at a micro-level in communities and that disabled children can play an important role. “Each kid is an advocate in their own community. I’m most excited about that.”

As for her own sporting goals, Sarah says: “One of my tricks to stay motivated is to always sign up for something.” Always one to look ahead, she’s looking forward to participating in the 2018 World Marathon Challenge. Go Sarah!