CLEARWATER — Sarah Reinertsen knew she was different. No matter what she did, everyone noticed.
When she played youth soccer. When she walked the halls in middle and high school. And even when she went to college.
"We all have differences, but I had a disability that was obvious to everyone," said Reinertsen, who was born with a deformed left leg and had it amputated when she was 7. "If you fall, you have to get back up. But you have to start the race."
That was her message Friday to the students at Guardian Angels Catholic School.
She told them how she turned her difference into a strength, first learning to run and competing in the Paralympics and later as a triathlete in Ironman competitions.
She was visiting the school as a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation Inc., which supports athletes with physical disabilities who want to participate in sports but need help with expensive equipment and training.
The foundation has been the beneficiary of $2,000 raised by the Guardian Angels Catholic School's Beta Club over the last three years. The club has raised the money by sponsoring Red, White and Blue Day, which took place Friday. For donating a dollar or more, the students were allowed to ditch their uniforms and dress down.
"The good thing is that this was something that not only the older kids but everyone could participate in," said Danielle Komara, 14, an eighth-grader and Beta Club president. "We also have a lot of athletes and it's good for us to see that if you keep working, you can achieve your goals."
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Reinertsen was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency which caused her left leg to be deformed. The Long Island native wore a cumbersome leg brace.
At age 6, she joined the neighborhood soccer team. The coach would allow Reinertsen to kick and run but when it was time to play scrimmages, he would give her a ball and tell her to kick against a wall — alone.
Reinertsen still tears up when she thinks about the isolation.
"I saw that coach about a year ago and I thanked him," Reinertsen said. "I've been trying to prove you wrong all my life."
At age 7, Reinertsen had her left leg amputated above the knee.
In the hospital's hallways, she learned how to walk in "an even world" but not how to walk up hills or climb steps. She was told she'd never be able to run again.
Reinertsen would fall often. Sometimes her mother would help her up. At other times, she wouldn't.
"It's a lesson I had to learn," Reinertsen said. "For me to keep up, I've always had to be tougher than the rest."
Attending a foot race with her father, Reinertsen saw a woman running with an artificial leg. After the race, she tracked the woman down. The youngster was not only given inspiration to learn to run, but the encounter also helped her set another goal.
"She told me about the Paralympics," Reinertsen said. "In the sixth grade, I wrote an essay in which I said I was going to go to the Olympics."
Four months later, Reinertsen learned to run and at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, Reinertsen represented the United States in the 100-meter dash.
"I tripped coming out of the starting blocks," Reinertsen said.
She didn't even get out of her heat.
Devastated, she gave up running.
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With running out of her life for what she thought was for good, she decided to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in part because the school didn't have a track. But watching television one Saturday afternoon, she came across an Ironman endurance competition.
"It was like, 'Look at those crazy people and I want to be one of those crazy people,' " she told the students, whose attention was fixed on Reinertsen and her story.
She started running again in 1996.
Despite being a bit timid about taking her artificial leg off in front of others, she learned to swim. She learned to ride a bike.
In 2003, Reinertsen participated in her first triathlon.
In 2004, she participated in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. There was a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon.
She was disqualified because she did not finish the bike portion in the allotted time.
"I didn't give up this time," Reinertsen said. "I went back to Kona."
In 2005, Reinertsen became the first female to finish the race on a prosthetic leg. The next year, she became the first female amputee to compete on the CBS show The Amazing Race.
"I never wanted to be underestimated and sports helped me own my disability and my body," said Reinertsen, who will run in today's Gasparilla 15K in Tampa. "I have a real drive to make a difference in this world and not just for people with disabilities but all people."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or [email protected]