Sarah Reinertsen swaps feet the way others change running shoes.
If she’s hitting the track, she puts on one kind of prosthetic. If she’s going for a long run, she chooses something else. Each is attached to a C-shaped running “blade” designed to mimic the shape of a cheetah’s hind leg.
Reinertsen, a 37-year-old triathlete from California, is best known as the first woman on a prosthetic leg to finish the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. Today, though, she’s focused on shorter distances. She wants to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics, where sprint triathlon will appear on the schedule for the first time.
She’ll speak about the prosthetic technology that allows her to compete at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Hyatt Regency as part of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. And yes, she’ll come armed with an array of high-tech running attachments for show and tell.
Reinertsen was born with a bone growth disorder. Doctors amputated her leg above the knee when she was 7. Four years later she learned to run again. Soon, she was practically flying. At 13, she broke the 100-meter record at her first international track meet.
She picked up speed — and distance — from there. She started running marathons, and then 10 years ago turned her attention to triathlons. Three times she’s finished the season ranked as the International Triathlon Union’s Paratriathlon World Champion in her classification.
You might recognize the powerful 5-foot athlete. In 2006, she and her then-boyfriend competed on the television reality show “The Amazing Race 10.” (They finished seventh.) She has adorned the cover of Runner’s World, appeared in chocolate milk commercials and made the lineup, naked, in the Body Issue of ESPN the Magazine. In 2009 she published a memoir called “In a Single Bound: Losing My Leg, Finding Myself and Training for Life.”
Reinertsen uses different prosthetics depending on the sport, and during a triathlon she changes them along the way.
Artificial limbs aren’t allowed during the swim part of a tri, so Reinertsen hops or crutches her way from the water to the transition area. There she straps on a special leg with a bike cleat bolted to the bottom for the cycling stage. When she’s done with that, she switches to a running prosthetic.
Prosthetics don’t make triathletes faster, she says, they simply allow people like her to compete in the sport. Still, controversy has swirled around the use of so-called running blades, with some saying the high-tech limbs give athletes an advantage.
In track, where blade runners come closer to the times of able-bodied athletes, that may have some truth, Reinertsen says. But not in triathlon, where she says banning blades would be like banning eyeglasses in archery.
She points to finish times. Reinertsen, one of the world’s top paratriathletes, crossed the line of Ironman Kona in 15 hours and 5 minutes. Pro women finish in about 9 hours.
“I am six hours behind them,” she says. “There is no advantage there.”
When she first started competing, running prosthetics weren’t available, and she had to use her everyday leg. Lighter, springier prosthetics for sport appeared about 15 years ago, giving athletes a better toe-off when they ran.
They’ve evolved further since then. Early on, Reinertsen and other athletes struggled to fit shoes to the bottom of the running prosthetics. Technicians tore apart dozens of running shoes over the years, gluing the soles onto the bottom of Reinertsen’s artificial foot.
“But the running foot has a squared-off toe, the blade is squared off on the side, and the bottom of a shoe has curves,” she says.
As a result, her prosthetic spent a lot of time in the shop, getting more rubber wrapped around it. Often she resorted to duct tape. Without her leg, she lost valuable training hours.
“It was a laborious process, and it was inconsistent,” she says.
Six years ago she teamed up with Nike, and experts in the company’s Innovation Kitchen started hand-making shoes for her. “You go in there and it’s like a candy store, with so many kinds of rubbers and colors and material densities and tread styles,” she says.
They dubbed the prototype, the first-ever running shoe made for a prosthetic, the Sarah Sole. “I’d go to races and other amputees would want it,” she said.
That prototype evolved into the Nike Sol, now available to the public. The interchangeable soles — a different one for trails, roads or tracks — attach to a running foot made by Össur. The system works as well for recreational athletes lining up for the neighborhood 5K as well as elite athletes in the Paralympics, she says.
“It fits on the prosthetic like a glove. You can slide it on and off,” she says.
Reinertsen has trimmed 37 minutes off her marathon time since she started, although she credits part of the improvement to better fitness. Her best marathon time is 5 hours and 27 minutes.
Now Reinertsen is focusing on qualifying for the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. As part of her preparation, she’ll return to Austin in May to race in the Capitol of Texas Triathlon, which serves as the USA Paratriathlon National Championship.
Look for the flashing blade.
Sarah Reinertsen will speak about “The Bionic Athlete and the Future of Sports” at 3:30 p.m. today at the Hyatt Regency, 208 Barton Springs Road. At 5 p.m. she’ll sign copies of her book in the Ballroom D foyer of the Austin Convention Center. SXSW Interactive badges are required.