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Gut Checks: Overcoming Adversity

An extraordinary trio of athletes overcomes staggering odds to push the boundaries of the possible.

For Christiaan Bailey, that bad thing came on July 23, 2006. A pro skateboarder and surfer, Bailey had just returned to his hometown of Santa Cruz from a surfing trip in Morocco. His manager called and told him that he had to come to a local skate park and shoot some footage for a new video. Bailey hadn’t slept in two days, but he went anyway. “I proceeded to do a trick I had done a million times before, called a boneless 360,” he says. “Upon launching at full speed, my knee blew out and I landed backwards. The compression fractured several vertebrae in my back.”

The injury left Bailey paralyzed from the waist down. “You kind of come to the realization that all of your dreams, all of your aspirations, have come to an end,” he says. After a month of rehab, Bailey returned home, where he got a surprise visit from four friends. They wanted to go surfing—with him. They grabbed his suit, pulled a vintage Robert August surfboard from Bailey’s wall, and drove him out to Pleasure Point, a popular surf spot not far from his home. “They weren’t taking no for an answer,” he says.

“It was simultaneously shit scary and a lot of fun,” he remembers. Since that initial two-hour ride, Bailey has surfed in “expression sessions” at dozens of pro surfing events, including the O’Neill Cold Water Classic and the U.S. Open of Surfing. To stay fit, he eats healthy—lots of salads and chicken breasts, not too much beer—and surfs and paddleboards. After years of designs and redesigns, his boards are technological wonders, built for speed and maneuverability, with handles on the top to hold onto and surf fins specifically tailored for riding in the prone position. It’s wild to see what he can do on those boards, but until you do, well, it can be tough to visualize. Says Biley: “I can’t tell you how often I get asked, “So, do you wheel your wheelchair onto the surfboard?”

Bailey has since become the first disabled athlete to surf Mavericks, which, with its 50-foot waves and shallow, rocky reefs, is considered one of the world’s scariest venues for big wave surfers. What motivates a guy—any guy, not just one with a handicapped placard—to do something like that? “Prior to my injury, whenever people told me I couldn’t do a trick or a particular stunt, it only made me want to prove them wrong,” he says. “I think that’s more true now than ever.”

It’s a trait Reinertsen shares in spades, despite her prosthetic leg. When she decided to take on the Ironman in 2004, there was no one else to look to and say, hey, she did it, so can I. But Reinertsen committed to tackling the legendary endurance test, trained and sweated and pushed her body—then failed, that first attempt scuttled cycling the wind-swept hills of Kona. “I was crying,” she remembers. “It was just very raw and very real.” She traveled to the finish line as other competitors heard their names being called. Joe Smith, you are an Ironman. “I was like, shit, I’m not an Ironman,” she says. “But you know what? I’m coming back, and he’s gonna call my name.”

That following year, Reinertsen was relentless, her DNF eating at her, yet fueling her, too. She cycled in the deserts of Southern California on the most sweltering days, hoping to replicate Hawaii’s unforgiving heat. She refused to turn on her car’s air conditioning, wouldn’t even go in buildings where thte AC was blowing. She skipped weddings—including her dad’s—rather than miss a training session. “I was a little crazy,” she admits. “Whatever I did on any day, if it didn’t help me get to the Ironman, I didn’t need to do it.”

On October 15, 2005, Reinertsen became the first female amputee to complete the Ironman. She heard her name called, along with “You are an Ironman”. Reinertsen allowed herself to savor the moment—until later that night. She spent that night calculating how she might have shaved five minutes off her official time (15:05:12) to come in under fifteen hours.

It’s something she hopes to do next year, at the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City. Coach Michael “Muddy” Waters is helping her get there, with a training regimen that’s heavy on core and glute exercises: medicine ball crunches, Pilates moves, planks, and then more crunches. “The bike is usually the Achilles heel for these athletes,” he says. “Your good leg is doing most of the work, and when you’re climbing, you have a tendency to push and pull. With a prosthetic, you can push through, but you can’t really pull up. That’s when you hope you’ve done a lot of good core and glute work.”

“Would I be this Ironman athlete if I had two legs?”, Reinertsen wonders. “I can’t say for sure. I certainly don’t know if I would have taken it to this extreme. I think maybe it’s a reactive response to being so underestimated, so I had to kind of go over the top, you know?”

It’s a sentiment shared by all three of these athletes. “If I had never had that challenge to try to be the guy who could run a marathon with diabetes,” says Hewitt, “I would have never tried to be the guy who did the Ironman with diabetes.” What happened to them, they say—these things that others call “disabilities”—are actually blessings. “I’m happier now in my chair than I was prior to my injury,” says Bailey.

“I’ve had a lot of greatness come into my life,” says Reinertsen. “If someone were to ask me, ‘If you could relive your life with two legs, would you do it?,’ well, you know what? I wouldn’t.” It’s a startling admission—but only if you had no idea what Reinertsen has done using just one leg. “I’ve had a perfectly normal—,” she begins, and then laughs at the absurdity of what she was just about to say. “I’ve had an extraordinary life,” she admits, finally. “I wouldn’t swap it for one with two legs.”

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Comments (2)

Edie S.
12/5/2011 3:13 PM
Great stories. I especially appreciated the inclusion of Jay Hewitt because my husband is Type I diabetic. Would love to know whether he uses an insu... Read more
David Fink
12/2/2011 10:48 AM
Incredible what people do mentally and physically to push themselves to be the best they can be. Truly inspiring!



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