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Friday, Oct 05 2012 05:00 PM

Amputees speak of overcoming adversity at conference

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Triathlete Sarah Reinertsen tells her story to middle school students attending a leadership conference at Bakersfield College. Reinertsen became the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete in the Hawaii Ironman competition back in 2005.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Amputee Sarah Reinertsen talks about courage and never giving up to middle school students at a leadership conference at Bakersfield College. Reinertsen is a triathlete and was the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman competition back in 2005.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Can't actually say he's "dog tired", but fourteen-year-old Connor Dodge did take a break from his duties as a bulldog at the Leadership Conference being held at Bakersfield College for middle school students.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

A year after Sarah Reinertsen's leg was amputated at the age of 6 due to a tissue disorder she was born with, her parents signed her up for a soccer league.

She was fully capable of playing with her prosthetic leg, but the coach wouldn't let her run drills or participate in scrimmage games at the team's weekly practices. Instead, he told her to go kick a ball against a wall by herself.

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Students at the conference also heard from another amputee, Michael Crowe. The Centennial High School graduate is an alumni of the conference.

"Twelve years ago, I was in the same seats where you are now," he said.

Crowe, an officer with the Bakersfield Police Department, was just hired into his first law enforcement job after graduating from the University of Arizona and the Bakersfield Police Academy when he was injured in a motorcycle accident. He'd been riding on Ming Avenue on March 22 when a teenager who was texting while driving accidentally hit him, knocking him off the motorcycle and causing him to slide some 200 feet, he said.

"I looked down and saw my leg was hanging by a piece of skin," Crowe said.

Doctors presented Crowe with a horrible choice. They could remove his badly severed leg completely, enabling him to walk and run with a prosthetic, or do their best to restore his injured leg with the roughly 60 percent chance that he'd never run again and would have difficulty walking.

Crowe, 24, opted for a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg on April 4, and then sunk into a "big depression."

"I was angry. I was upset," he said. "I thought, 'How does this happen to me?' A week before, I had just graduated from the police academy. I was on an emotional high. I had all of that going for me and then it just came crashing down."

Loved ones rallied around Crowe, however. They assured him his life wasn't over, and he made up his mind to continue pursuing his dream of a career in law enforcement. Crowe went to physical therapy three times a week, worked out at the gym five to seven times a week, and re-read police academy textbooks to keep his education fresh.

In a few weeks, Crowe said, he'll be returning to duty on the police force because he did three things: Recognized the challenge ahead, planned how he was going to overcome it, and then he executed his plan.

There's no way to avoid adversity, Crowe said.

"Life is going to slap you in the face, and you're going to have to figure out how to move on from that," he said.

Reinertsen didn't let it discourage her. In 2005, she become the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The grueling triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run.

Now 37, Reinertsen is still competing in (and often winning) world-class athletic events such as the Paralympic Games and International Triathlon Union races. She's appeared on the cover of ESPN Magazine, was a contestant on the 2010 season of television's "The Amazing Race," and even has a Nike shoe for prosthetics named after her.

More than 500 students from 79 schools all over the county heard Reinertsen's story, and those of other inspiring speakers, at the Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership conference Friday on the campus of Bakersfield College.

Reinertsen opened her address with a short video clip of her finishing the bicycle leg of the Iron Man competition in 2004. She was eliminated after finishing 15 minutes past the deadline, and upon learning that, burst into tears.

"Not the clip you were expecting, was it?" Reinertsen asked the audience of students, a glint in her eye.

If you look on the Iron Man's official rankings for that year, the letters DNF are next to her name, Reinertsen said. That stands for "did not finish."

"It was devastating," Reinertsen recalled. "It was kind of a bummer, but I realized that a DNF was a whole lot better than a DNS. Did not start."

It took her a little while to get there, though. Initially, Reinertsen was so distraught that she didn't even want to go to the awards ceremony for the winners. But her mother pushed her there, just as she had pushed Reinertsen all her life.

"My parents treated me like any other kid," she said. "My mother didn't always pick me up when I fell. She said, 'Sarah is going to pick herself up.' It was a really important life lesson for me."

Reinertsen came from a family of athletes. Her father ran marathons and used to drag his children to them to cheer him on throughout her childhood. At one of those races, Reinertsen saw a woman with one leg run by well ahead of her two-legged father and made a point to meet het.

She found the lady at the finish line, and that's how she learned that disabled people could not only compete, but excel.

At 11 years old, Reinertsen wrote in a class essay she'd been assigned at school that she would make it to the Paralympics one day. As an adult, she did make it, and was favored to win her first year there, but tripped out of the starting gate of a 100-meter race.

Reinertsen was so disappointed and angry that she stopped running for a few years. But she met another disabled athlete at a facility that helps maintain prosthetics (which need to be oiled and lubricated regularly). He was a triathlete, and he inspired her to return to sports.

It didn't matter that he was a man and she was a woman, or that he was 6-foot-4 and she was an even 5 feet tall. It didn't even matter that she'd never ridden a bike, and had yet to progress beyond dog paddling in a pool. If he could do it, she could do it, she decided.

Reinertsen learned cycling on a stationery bike, and joined a gym with a pool to teach herself how to swim. It was a year before she used her membership, though. For a while she was too embarrassed to go there and remove her prosthetic leg -- which isn't waterproof -- in front of strangers.

"I got the bill, and after a year of paying for a pool I wasn't using, I had a little talk with myself," Reinertsen said. "I am not saying don't feel the fear, but don't let it stop you."

Thirteen years after setting the goal to finish the Iron Man competition, Reinertsen completed it. She's been a force in elite athletics ever since.

"I don't just tell my story to impress you, but rather I want to impress upon you the possibilities that exist in your own life, for you to look inside yourself," Reinertsen said. "For you to look inside yourself and realize the potential that you have."

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