Op-Ed: To This Amputee Athlete, Oscar Pistorius Runs on Talent

Take disabled athletes seriously, Sarah Reinertsen says, and let them compete.

Triathlete Sarah Reinertsen says even high-tech prosthetics don't give athletes an unfair advantage. (Photo: Candice Albach)

Aug 6, 2012

The hype over South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius is in a way good, since it lets the world see that an amputee or disabled athlete is to be taken seriously. Oscar shows the world that people with disabilities are athletes, and that to me is a watershed moment.

Oscar is a fine-tuned engine. He has to use his training, mental attitude and energy to make those prosthetic legs work. I think it is fear that feeds the controversy about him.  “They,” whoever “they” are, are worried what will come next.

Will there be more wanting to run like Oscar? Like the story of Chicken Little, when is the sky really falling? Even the scientists cannot agree on whether his prosthetic legs are an advantage or a disadvantage.

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Oscar is not the first disabled athlete to compete in the Olympics. The first was George Eyser, who had a prosthetic leg and medaled in gymnastics in the 1904 games.

Natalie Du Toit is a single amputee South African swimmer who competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In professional sports, golfer Casey Martin, who has a circulatory disorder in his right leg, won the right to use a golf cart after taking his case to the Supreme Court. That allowed him to compete in PGA tournaments.

For amputee runners, it takes more than just carbon fiber blades to be fast. If that’s an advantage, I don’t see it. How is it an advantage to not have two legs? The carbon fiber gives an energy return of 90 percent, but you have to be the engine to inject that energy into the legs. The human foot has an energy return of about 200 percent. Do we tell someone, you can’t wear those glasses because it makes you see better?

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Oscar has to wear legs or he cannot walk, run or function in daily life, just like any other amputee. I think questions could be raised if it had a battery or an engine in the leg, but that clearly is not the case.

I have been out there doing my sport for over 25 years and I have seen a lot of changes, the Flex-Foot Cheetah foot being one of them. It has changed my sport by giving me the opportunity to really get in the game. It has also changed my life in many ways.

But it’s hard enough to be an athlete with a missing leg, much less be told that I have an advantage because of my prosthetic. Really? It takes an athlete with a prosthetic leg more energy and more oxygen than a non-amputee athlete to do any sport.

When I do triathlons, I use no prosthetic for the swim. I use a bike leg for the bike portion, which has a cleat on the bottom so I can click in my bike pedal. I also have a running leg, which is like Oscar’s, but I am an above-the-knee amputee and missing one leg.

The perception that you just strap on your leg and go is not the reality. It’s not that easy. It takes extra work to overcome the odds that are against you. I get only 10 percent power out of my prosthetic leg, especially on the bike, so I have to use my good leg to make up the difference.

Competing in Ironman triathlons, I know going in that I will be in the last group, finishing two to three hours later. It takes a lot of self-talk and motivation to keep yourself in the game. If my prosthetic leg was an advantage, why am I not coming in at 10 to 12 hours like other competitors?

We are athletes just like anyone else, but we have to do sports differently, with extra equipment. Yet we have the same passions, dreams, hopes and talents as able-bodied athletes.

I love competing and my prostheses allow me to compete. I say, isn’t that great?

Sarah Reinertsen is a member of the USAT National Paratriathlon team and the first female above the knee amputee to finish the Ford Ironman World Championship. Her Ossur prosthetic is similar to the one used by Oscar Pistorius

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