The winners of this year's Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, carried with them no shortage of personal drama. The men's champion, Faris Al-Sultan (8:14:17), is half-Iraqi, half-German, and he trained in the desert heat of the United Arab Emirates. Natascha Badmann of Switzerland took the women's title (9:09:30), becoming only the fourth person to win the championship at least six times. But both of them were upstaged by a 5-foot, 95-pound woman racing in only her second Ironman.
Sarah Reinertsen, 30, was born with her left leg shorter than her right and had a full amputation at age seven because a prosthesis would make it easier to walk. It made it so easy, in fact, that she went on to set several track world records for amputees and finish all seven marathons she entered. So when Reinertsen did not complete the 2004 championship--she finished the bicycle section 15 minutes after the 10-hour, 30-minute cutoff time--she was stunned.
She didn't care that she had only learned to ride a bike a year and a half earlier. Or that no female above-the-knee amputee had ever completed the Ironman's 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. All that mattered was that, for the first time since she stumbled out of the blocks as a 17-year-old at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, she had failed.
She wept openly on the course. When she returned home to San Diego, the woman who had been abuzz with energy her whole life fell into a funk. "I was lazing around the house in my pajamas a lot, watching movies, watching too much daytime television on the weekend," she says. Reinertsen can now recall those days in a lighthearted tone because on Oct. 15 she got her Ironman. She completed the race in 15:05:12, nearly a half hour ahead of her goal. "I'm still so over the moon and proud of my time," she says. "To come back and really stomp it, not finishing after midnight, but finishing solid, that was like ... yeah!"
Reinertsen's story is well-known in the triathlon community, thanks in part to NBC's coverage of her in the 2004 Ironman. She has often recounted the tale of how, at age six, when her left leg was in a brace, she joined a youth soccer team in her hometown in Huntington, N.Y., but the coach kept her off the field, telling her to practice kicking a ball against the wall. During a half-Ironman this summer in Kona, a malfunction in her artificial leg forced Reinertsen into a jerky running motion. Seeing her struggle, a fellow competitor shouted, "Sarah, think of the soccer coach. Show him you can finish."
In the championship Reinertsen had a dream day. The winds stayed relatively calm, and when she finished the bicycle course 1 1/2 hours ahead of the cutoff, she knew the race was hers. Tabi King, who works with Reinertsen in the marketing department of prosthetics maker Ossur, was one of 16 friends and family members who cheered her on while wearing T-shirts that read UNFINISHED BUSINESS. As Reinertsen crossed the finish line, King says, "I was crying, her family was crying, the media were crying. The only one not crying was Sarah."
Reinertsen always runs with a mantra in her head. Sometimes it's something fun like: Hot showers, cold beer, straight ahead. In 2004 it was Imua, Hawaiian for "keep moving forward." This year, through her 15 hours on the course, she kept repeating to herself: Show them you're tougher than the rest.