GW News
A Faculty for Writing
Alumni Events and Activities
Alumni Newsmakers

Service Notes
Shaping Modern Oman
Street Smarts
Mission Accomplished
In Memoriam
Alumni Bookshelf
Artist's Corner


Contact Us
Alumni Association
Law Alumni Association
GW News Center


When Sarah Reinertsen, BA ’98, was a little girl, her family had a choice to make. They could let her go on living with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a birth defect that would eventually render her left leg half the length of her right, or doctors could amputate Reinertsen’s leg above the knee and fit her with a prosthetic limb.

John Segesta

Keeping her own leg would mean she’d need to wear braces to help her walk easier, though she’d never be able to keep up with other kids in the neighborhood. Prosthetics of the 1980s weren’t what they are today. They were wooden and heavy with rubber feet at the ends—and playing tag in one would be a chore. But the technology was developing every day and the future of prosthetics was looking good. So, at age 7, Reinertsen lay on an operating table awaiting amputation.

The family made the right decision. Not only can Reinertsen walk, she runs—a lot. In fact, she has finished seven marathons (her first as a senior at GW), and though she didn’t ride a bike until she was 28, she’s an expert now, having completed 20 triathlons—her first just one month after removing her training wheels. In October, at 30 years old, she’ll face the Superbowl of triathlons: The Hawaii Ironman World Championship.

Think a race in Hawaii is all leis and luaus? Competitors in the Ironman start with a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific, followed by 112-mile bike ride. When they’re through—assuming they’ve come in before the cutoff time—they run a marathon, that’s 26.2 miles. And the weather doesn’t always cooperate. “You’re going to get wind,” Reinertsen says. “It’s going to get hot. You just don’t know how windy or how hot.” As long as the runners cross the finish line 17 hours after the 7 a.m. shotgun start, they can consider themselves finishers.

Like competitors with two legs, Reinertsen needs to focus on her speed and form. But she’s also got other things to worry about. She needs to make sure someone is standing at the water’s edge ready to pass on her crutches, so she can make it to her bike, put on her specialized biking prosthetic, and begin pedaling. Then she’s got to switch legs again before the marathon. And not only does Reinertsen have to deal with the typical post-race problems of muscle fatigue, dehydration, and blisters, she has more to deal with: After running the Boston Marathon, the end of her leg was so sore she couldn’t wear her prosthetic for two weeks.

This is Reinertsen’s second shot at the championship. Last year, she came out of the cycling portion of the race just 14 minutes past the cutoff time to continue on to the run. Even though she spent the last 30 miles of her bike ride vomiting due to dehydration—and even though she would no longer be considered a competitor—Reinertsen wanted to finish the race, but the medical team put a stop to that. Her failure to finish was heart wrenching. She reflected on all of the things she passed up over the last year just to train—friends’ weddings, movies, nights out on the town—and then she headed back to the mainland and began training all over again.

Reinertsen now lives and trains in California and works as a marketing manager for Ossür, a company that specializes in prostheses for amputees, but her resume has varied. When she was only 13, she broke the World Record for female above-the-knee amputees in the 100-meter dash (she still holds that record today). Later, she competed in the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona as the youngest member of the U.S. Disabled Track Team. After the games, she chose to spend her undergrad years at GW because she wanted to live near a city, and, better yet, she liked what she saw in the University’s international affairs programs—she even spent a year studying in Madrid.

That traveling bug fits a runner like Reinertsen who has competed in races in London, New Zealand, and New York. She’s sure she’s going to finish the Ironman, and when she does, she’ll become the first female, above-the-knee amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman. Though she thinks she can cross the finish line in just over 16 hours, Reinertsen’s real goal is to cross that finish line, period. “I just want to finish under 17 hours.” If that means she comes in at 16:59:59, so be it. She can always work on her speed for the 2006 World Championships.

—Maureen Gallagher