Sarah Reinertsen is a motivational speaker who addresses corporate audiences across the country. As a world-class athlete, she competes in dozens of races every year. Sarah also leads a series of sports clinics and mentors other athletes with and without disabilities. She lives and trains in Orange County, California. This is an excerpt from her first book.
Jump at the Chance
For most who’ve dabbled in running, there’s a certain mystique about a marathon. It’s a Holy Grail of sorts, a seemingly unattainable goal, the race that modern runners have been measured by since 1921, the year the 26 miles and 385 yards distance was standardized.
The New York City Marathon is acknowledged to be one of the coolest in the world, right up there with the Boston Marathon and the Olympics. The route goes through all five boroughs and takes the racers past streets and landmarks that all New Yorkers are intimately familiar with. I’ve driven over the verrazano Bridge zillions of times, but seeing all the racers sprint, run, and jog over the bridge, with their multicolored track gear—it’s the helicopter shot of the 20,000-plus runners taking up every lane on every level of that bridge that always gets me— is quite a sight. The finish line is also an emotional moment; to see the reaction as they cross the tape is at once moving and inspiring. Each year a different drama unfolds: agony and heartache, joy and triumph.
The race is covered on live television in the New York metro area, and in our house it was a tradition to tune in. We’d zip home from church on marathon Sunday (which is generally the first Sunday in November) so we could watch the entire event from start to finish. We didn’t want to miss one second of my hero Grete Waitz, that elegant and strong Norwegian woman who ran through the streets of New York at an unfathomable pace. I wanted to be like Grete. Knowing that Paddy Rossbach had completed nine marathons helped make the concept more than a pipe dream, and falling in love with long-distance running turned the dream into a goal.
There’s a meditative quality about distance running that, once my body got used to the punishment of the road, I grew to love, so much so that 5Ks and 10Ks felt like appetizers. I was ready for a full 26-mile meal, so I signed up to run the 1997 NYC Marathon. The longest distance I’d run to that point was 17 miles, and that wasn’t even consecutive miles, but rather 17 miles in a 24- hour period. But I figured if I could do 17 miles in 24 hours, 26-plus miles in six-plus hours wasn’t unrealistic. I also knew I’d had years of experience hiking through the woods with my family during our summer vacations in Highland Lake, New York, and if I could wander over bumpy terrain for hours, I could hike through semibumpy Manhattan. Sure, I wanted to run the marathon like Grete, but one step at a time; at the very least I could hike or walk my way to the finish line.
The entry process was a relative breeze; most runners have to enter a lottery to win a slot in the field, but the New York Road Runners Club has a tradition of being incredibly supportive of athletes with disabilities, so after applying for one of the Achilles slots in the race, I was given an entry form for the NYC marathon, even though the race was three months away. I filled out the race form and sent it along with my $65 check, and when the mailbox shut, in that moment, I was both terrified and exhilarated. No turning back. It was real.
I went straight home and immediately called David Balsley, because if anybody could get me through 26 miles, it was him. We discussed a tentative schedule, and I mentioned to him that I’d clipped some marathon training plans from Runner’s World, but David told me I’d need a completely different approach. “Look Sarah, you can’t run fast enough to cover all the mileage those plans suggest right now. You’re an amputee runner, and you have to train differently, and your focus should be on time.” “Time?
I just want to finish the damn race.”
“I mean, the amount of time you’ll be spending on your prosthetic. You have to get comfortable being on it nonstop for hours at a time.” That’s something I’d never considered, but it made total sense. “So when you make your little schedule, instead of you saying, ‘I’m running 10 miles on Saturday,’ I want you to say, ‘I’m doing a three hour jog/walk on Saturday.’ I don’t care how much you run, or how much you walk, although I’d love for you to run as much as possible. I just want you to do the full three hours without stopping. The Saturday after that, three-and-a-half hours.” That’s not the kind of thing they’d necessarily suggest in Runner’s World… but maybe they should.
Every long-ish walk was an opportunity to train, and when my classmates saw me jog-walking from place to place, they thought I was nuts. I was taking 17 credits worth of classes at George Washington University (18 is considered a full load), so between that, prepping for the race for 10 hours a week, taking a pair of hardcore yoga classes, and doing grunt work as a minimum-wage slave at a media consulting firm, I was pretty maxed out, and everybody knew it—except, of course, for me.
I didn’t go out much, and I didn’t miss the bars or the party scene one bit. I went to bed early so I could go on long training runs through the best of Washington, DC, past the Jefferson Memorial with a bonus stair-climb up to the Lincoln Memorial, then down to the Capitol building, and past the White House, then back to my studio apartment in Foggy Bottom. With each run, I became both physically and emotionally stronger. I was back on track, and jog-walking toward a bright future.
In terms of how I would perform at the marathon, I had no expectations. How could I? My longest training jogwalk lasted five-and-a-half hours, which had completely wiped me out; I was so sore the next day that I couldn’t even muster the energy to walk to the library.
Now that I knew I could jog-walk for over five-plus hours, I could start crunching some numbers: How many miles did I cover on that five-hour training session? How fast was I running? Okay, let’s say I did three miles per hour. Multiply that times five, and we’re talking 15 miles. But the question is: ‘How much slower would I be for the last 11 miles?’ Or, ‘can I even make those 11 miles?’ I eventually guesstimated that I could do them in seven hours…or possibly eight…or maybe nine. Truth is, my time didn’t matter. I was going to finish, dammit, even if I had to walk 20 of the 26 miles.
And then, in a blink, it was November 1, the day before the race. I crashed at David’s apartment on the Upper East Side. He and his beautiful wife Maggie welcomed me in, but I was dazed, not believing that I was actually going to do a marathon. Dave just tried to reassure me and showed me to their guest bedroom. The city was alive and loud: ambulances and trucks roared by, and people yelled at one another, but the noise in my head drowned out everything. I began to doubt myself and question the wisdom of signing up for this ridiculous race in the first place. But there was no backing out. Too many people were rooting for me, and I couldn’t let them down. Also, I couldn’t let me down.
At 4:00 a.m., after a grand total of three hours of nervous sleep, we took a car service to the starting area, arriving just before the verrazano closed for the day. In the spirit of helping out runners with disabilities, the New York City Marathon organizers set up an early start time for those of us who thought we’d take more than seven hours to finish—we could start at 8:30, while the other racers began at 10:45. At one point, I thought I might be able to get in under seven, but I remembered seeing 20,000 marathoners cross the verrazano on television, and it dawned on me that I could be slower just trying to negotiate my way along with that huge pack of runners.
A Sunday New York Times in tow, we found a tiny spot on the wet lawn in what’s called the Start village and tried to relax; it was a cold brisk morning so we were bundled in sweatshirts and sweatpants. I wound up not really reading the newspaper, but rather sitting on it to make the ground a bit warmer since we still had a couple of hours to wait. I distracted myself by listening to the dozens of racers from other countries speaking to each other in their native languages. It was a veritable United Nations of runners, with many athletes wearing the colors of their nations’ flags; some even carried flags, or pinned them to the back of their jerseys.
The Start village is a quarter-mile away from the starting line, so at 8:00 a.m., we headed over to the bridge. About 150 early starting runners gathered around: a few blind athletes with their guides, a handful of folks in wheelchairs, some elderly people with walkers, and, of course, a certain short, blonde chick from Long Island with a missing leg. The New York City Marathon isn’t kicked off with a mere starter’s pistol—that would be far too small for the Big Apple. No, the New York City Marathon is launched with a cannon…or at least it is for the regular runners. For us early starters, it’s, “On your mark, get set, go,” and then a little foghorn. Not exactly what you’d call glamorous, but it sounded grand to me.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain a standard legover-leg gait for the entire race, so I eased into the race with a hop-skip step, which didn’t put as much strain on my lower left back and helped me to conserve my energy. (They say the longest journey starts with a single step, not a single hop-skip, but you have to work with what you’ve got.) So David slowly jogged next to me as I hop-skipped my way across the bridge toward the New York City skyline, and the long day had officially begun.
I had taken a public relations course earlier that year at George Washington, and I’d become pretty media-savvy, so a month before the race, I faxed out press releases to a bunch of New York and national television and print outlets, saying, “Paralympic athlete, 100m world record holder, and New York native Sarah Reinertsen is doing her first marathon, blah blah blah.” As a struggling college student who didn’t have any shoe or clothing sponsors, buying multiple pairs of Nike Airs had become a hardship, so I figured some TV coverage could lead to some sorely needed sponsorships. The plan worked: A couple of newspapers interviewed me, and the NBC affiliate tracked me down and told me to look for their crew when we hit Brooklyn, around the ten-mile mark.
I was in pretty good shape as we continued running toward the Queensborough Bridge—we’d already been on the course for about three hours, and, thanks to David’s regimen, I could do three hours in my sleep—so my chipper banter with the interviewer and the ear-toear grin they showed on the 11:00 news that night were completely sincere and legit. I was having a great time, and everybody told me it showed. Len Berman, the NBC sports anchor back in the studio, even signed off the piece with a little, “Way to go, Sarah! Represent New York!” I felt like a true hometown hero.
Almost immediately after the interview, the elite runners started blowing by us, which was incredible. We had the best view imaginable of those Kenyan wunderkinds effortlessly breezing through their five-minute miles. Then came the TV trucks, then came the average Joes who, with their 2:30 finish times, really weren’t that average.
The crowds along the streets of New York were magical, and by the time we ran up First Avenue in Manhattan, I actually felt like Grete Waitz. Unfortunately, when I reached the water stop at the 16th mile, my lower back started to really bother me. I took a moment to eat a Cliff Bar and take a couple of Advils. The ibuprofen didn’t seem to do much, so we stopped at the next medical tent a few miles later, and had someone rub some Ben-Gay onto my lower left back. The smelly gel worked wonders, and the weird tingling heat kept me loose enough to get me through the next couple miles.
An hour later, at mile 20, my back started singing again, but I didn’t really notice, because my entire body was a bundle of pain, not to mention that I had nothing left in my tank. Just like a lot of first-time marathoners, I hit the wall, but David wouldn’t let that stop me: “C’mon, Sarah,” he yelled, “you can do this. We’ve only got a 10K to go, that’s just six miles, you can cover that, no problem. Just don’t stop moving; it’s going to be harder to start up again if you quit.” He chuckled a little, then continued, “You’re a tough chick, not just some blonde bimbo. You finish this silly race now!” I laughed, then soon fell into an autopilot zone where I was in almost a comatose state, which might’ve been my body’s way of helping me compartmentalize my exhaustion and pain. (I once heard former championship cyclist and television commentator Phil Liggett say about the Tour de France, “You have to learn how to put up with a certain amount of suffering.” Even though he was talking about bicycle riding, you can certainly apply the sentiment to marathons. When your legs beg you to stop, you ignore their protests and keep pushing forward, regardless.) Fortunately, the onlookers woke me up, which is why I love big city races—the crowd support is always amazing. Their encouraging shouts and nonstop applause have carried many a runner across many a finish line.
And then came the rains. (It was in the forecast, and I was mentally prepared for it, but it still sucked.) And we’re not talking a drizzle, or even a steady November shower. We’re talking torrential downpours, accompanied by 20-some-odd-mile-per-hour winds. My clothes and shoes got drenched, and the moisture added what felt like ten pounds to my weight. I kept thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to my prosthetic? Is it going to rust? Do I have any WD-40 at home?’
I started to complain about the rain, and Dave said, “So what? It’s rain. Big deal. You gonna melt?” And then, to cheer me up and distract me, he started doing imitations of all the good cheers we had heard along the course. He did the guy that shouted out, “Hey all right, baby, the Bronx loves ya! You’re gonna make it sweetheart,” and the animated lady in Harlem who screamed, “Ohmigod, you are unbelievable! You go, girlfriend! You go!” That local flavor is part of what makes New York runs so magical.
And then, arm thrust in the air and a grin plastered onto my face, I crossed the finish line in 6:32. This was just as cool as an Olympic medal, and it was even more satisfying than breaking the 100m world record, because it was sooooo much more difficult.
After the race, with the rain still turning Manhattan into a flood zone, we walked back to David’s apartment on the Upper East Side—that’s right, we walked, because it’s impossible to find a cab in New York on Marathon Day. My family was waiting for me at Dave’s place; Mom, her boyfriend (now husband) Pete Fuentes, and my Aunt Simone, gave me hugs and kisses. We ordered some Chinese, and I shoved down dinner, then headed off to LaGuardia Airport, because I had to catch the last shuttle back to DC, so I’d be able to make classes the next morning. I wore my medal on the plane like a big old dork and basked in the glow of my victory.
The victory, however, was short-lived. The next morning I learned that if you take the early 8:30 race start, and you finish in under seven hours, you’re disqualified, because they don’t want the masses taking unfair advantage of the jump on the crowd. So technically, I had disqualified myself by completing the race in under seven hours. It was a small bummer, but I knew what I had accomplished. My legs were sore, stiff, and living proof that I did indeed run 26-six-plus miles in 6:32. According to the official scorekeeper, I didn’t finish the New York Marathon. But if you’re scoring in the real world, I definitely finished, and definitely kicked ass.
Washington, DC is beautiful, but I was beginning to find it a bland, flavorless place. I was disenchanted by the political scene, and the charm of living down the street from the World Bank had completely dissipated. Everyone I met seemed to be a lobbyist or work on Capitol Hill, and I was ready for a change. New York had a vibrant energy that was completely lacking in Washington, and I was ready to move back home.
One problem: I had zero job prospects, and you don’t move to New York City without a gig. But fate intervened in the form of Paddy Rossbach. One week after the marathon, she left a message on my answering machine: “Hey, Sarah. Great job on the Marathon. I wanted to pass along a message I got from a woman at USC in Los Angeles, and she thinks you might be eligible for a scholarship for athletes with disabilities. How would you like to go to grad school for free? Call me.”
Free grad school sounded perfect. I loved learning and really enjoyed my classes at GW (especially after I straightened up my act), so I wasn’t ready to stop being a student. I never considered it, because the thought of taking out more student loans—and thus taking on more student debt—made my stomach hurt. But now, with only a month left until graduation, I was presented with an incredible opportunity to go to grad school. It would be the answer to dreams I hadn’t even dreamt.
I decided to let the fates decide. I’d apply at USC, and I’d apply for the scholarship, and if both of them came through, I’d go to California. With fingers crossed, I called Paddy, who put me in touch with Mara Redden from the board of the USC Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund. The scholarship was started in honor of a former USC All-American swimmer named Mike Nyeholt. After becoming paralyzed from the neck down due to a horrible motorcycle accident, he had lost his eligibility for his swim scholarship. Fellow teammate Ron Orr pulled together a fund-raising swim-athon, with the goal of raising enough money to help Mike pay for his tuition and for a wheelchair accessible van, which would enable him to live independently and get around school. That eventually evolved into an annual fund-raising event called “Swim with Mike,” and this scholarship program. Most of the athletes on the scholarship were people who’d become disabled later in life, e.g., the star high school quarterback who got hit by a drunk driver, or the star baseball player who broke his neck diving into a shallow lake. Using those criteria, I wouldn’t qualify, but it was still worth a shot.
That night, I went to the school library to find out what kind of programs USC offered. There was law school, med school, business school, a cinema program, and I was like a kid in a candy shop. Journalism still hit me at a gut level—instead of being a politician who tries to generate change, I could be a writer who succeeds in generating change. All of a sudden, knowing there was the possibility I’d be able to get into one of these programs, the world opened up for me.
Two months later, in January of 1998, I flew out to LA and stayed in the Hollywood Hills with John Siciliano, an amputee friend of mine who was going to USC on the Nyeholt scholarship. He was a gracious host and excellent tour guide. “I’ll take you to some classes,” he said, “and I’ll take you around the campus, and the scholarship people are having a planning meeting, and you can meet everybody.” I loved it.
I loved the campus, I loved the California vibe, I loved riding around in John’s convertible, I loved that I could run outside in a jogging bra and shorts in the middle of the winter and I loved all the admissions people. It was a veritable lovefest, and I wanted in.
I interviewed for the scholarship, and I could tell they weren’t convinced about me. Since I hadn’t done a sport and then lost my leg, since I brought my disability to the table from the get-go, I was in a gray area. I suspect their thinking was along the lines of, We’re not really set up for somebody like her. Where does she fit?
John spoke to one of the people on the scholarship board, who told John, “She’s not exactly the kind of candidate we give our scholarships to. Yes, she was a high school track athlete, but that was after she became disabled; we fund athletes that were athletes before they became disabled.” John said, “She was seven when they amputated her leg. What kind of athletic career was she supposed to have? I know when she was six, she played in the town soccer league one season. Does that count?”
“That’s not competitive athletics, and the amputation was because of a birth defect, so I’m afraid she doesn’t fit the scholarship criteria.”
I was deflated and disheartened. The window on grad school had closed, possibly for good. I had just spent a big chunk of change on this trip out to LA, and maybe it had been for nothing.
The next morning, on yet another perfect 72-degree California day, John took me for a ride around the city. I took in all the sights, resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing all that much of LA in the immediate future. We’d been driving for an hour when I spotted a mural advertising the Los Angeles Marathon right along the freeway, on the concrete wall by the 101/110 merger in downtown LA. Stuck in traffic, I stared at this display, and the wheels started turning.
I asked John, “Do you know when the LA Marathon is?” He shrugged. “I have no idea. Why?”
“Maybe I should run it. Maybe I could get people to sponsor me, and I could raise money for ‘Swim with Mike.’ I mean, I’m a terrible swimmer, but I know I can run. I truly am an athlete, and I would be a great addition to this school and scholarship fund, I just need to show them.” John didn’t seem entirely convinced by my plan, but he agreed to help me in any way he could.
The LA Marathon was in March, which gave me a whole two months to train. LA was going to be more difficult than New York because David wouldn’t be able to run with me. But I’d finished one marathon, so I knew I could finish another. I blew the dust off of my NYC training schedule, bought some winter running gear, and got busy. On race weekend, I flew back out to LA and crashed at John’s place. I’d told the USC scholarship folks I would be running the marathon wearing a USC hat and a “Swim with Mike” t-shirt, and would also send in my pledges and donation checks after the race. I didn’t know if it would nab me the scholarship, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt, and it was a good program to support either way.
About three miles into the race—which, it just so happened, put me right in the heart of the USC campus—I came even with a reporter in a news truck who was interviewing some of the back-of-the-pack runners. I peered at him for a minute or two, thought, Hmm, hmm, hmm, ahh, screw it, I’m going for it, then ran up beside him and yelled, “Hey, I’m Sarah! I don’t know if there are any other amputees running today, but I came all the way out here from New York to run the race on my artificial leg!” I felt a bit silly, but I needed all the exposure I could get. The newsie smiled. “Hey, Sarah, I’m Tim McLoon. That’s awesome. I’ve got to go interview these Marine guys…but if you stay to the left of the road, we’ll catch up to you.”
“Okay! Right on!” Once again, the squeaky blonde onelegged wheel got the grease. Ten minutes later, Tim rolled over for a chat, and this wasn’t going to be for a package that would run on the local 11:00 news—we were live. I was nervous and hoped I could actually speak and run at least somewhat gracefully at the same time. He had me introduce myself to the viewers, then asked me why I was running. I said, “I’m raising money for USC’s ‘Swim with Mike’ scholarship fund, and we just passed the USC campus, and I’m so pumped to be running for a great cause.” Tim then asked how I lost my leg, and a few other follow-up questions and that was it; it was all done in 90 seconds.
(I later found out that almost immediately after the interview, the scholarship people started getting phone calls, and the callers were all saying the same thing: “Ohmygawd, I just saw this girl on NBC talking about ‘Swim with Mike’, and she was awesome.” My on-thefly plan was a huge success.)
After Tim tossed it back to the studio, he turned to me and said, “No way!” “No way, what?” I asked. “You’re from New York. So am I. And we need to exchange information, because my neighbor is a seven-year-old girl who wears a prosthetic leg. She’s going through a tough time, and I have to connect you guys. I also work on the New York City Marathon show. Have you run that one yet?”
Now I’m not a big believer in fate, or destiny, or whatever, but there have been a few times in my life when something happened that shook my lack of faith. It turned out that meeting Tim was one of them. Something brought us together.
I finished the race in 6:15, and was shocked that in less than six months I’d shaved about 15 minutes off my time. What with the television appearance and the money I’d raised, I thought the chances of getting a scholarship looked pretty good, so much so, that almost immediately after I got back home, I booked a flight back to Cali for the big “Swim with Mike” event in April, so I could personally deliver the donation checks. That’d show them. Mom said, “You’re crazy. You’re spending all this money that you don’t have. What if they don’t give you the scholarship?” I said, “It’s a risk I have to take. Think about it: I’ve spent about $1,000 on plane fares, and I might get a $50,000 scholarship. It’s an investment. A speculative investment. And I love this school. I have to go there and swim with these people.”
And I went. And they were thrilled that I was there, but they probably covered their eyes while they watched me swim, because I stunk up the joint. While I was in the water, I mostly clung to the wall as my friends John and Paul Martin swam their laps. I spent most of my time on the pool deck, where I met Mike Nyeholt, and schmoozed with Mara.
At that afternoon’s barbecue, Mike Nyeholt’s former teammate Ron Orr read off the list of names of the scholarship winners. When he said “Sarah Reinertsen,” I had to keep my cool, because it wasn’t the time or place for a demonstrative Price is Right kind of display. But inside, I was jumping up and down.
I wouldn’t learn if I was accepted to USC for another month, but I thought my chances were solid. I had a decent transcript from GW and a good score on my GRE, but to put me over the edge, I included a TV news piece that I’d edited with the help of my mom’s fiancé, a news reporter for one of the local New York television stations. It was a short feature that told the story of my life using old VHS footage and home videos. The application was good enough, and in early May, a couple weeks before my 22nd birthday, I was accepted into USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, and it was time to start packing up my life and moving out to the West Coast.
Soon after the beginning of my first semester, it hit me that the New York City Marathon was just around the corner. I’d done LA in 6:15, which meant I’d improved over 15 minutes in only my second race, and I wondered if I could make that kind of leap again: So I went back home for a second round.
Tim McLoon was working the NYC Marathon and, when he heard I was running, pitched my story to the team that was covering the race. This wasn’t Len Berman and the local boys; this was the official national show that I’d watched back in Long Island. They bit.
Tim told me they didn’t have the budget to come out to California to shoot the story, but if I flew out to New York, it would be no problem. Since it would give me the opportunity to see my family and get some work done on my prosthetics, I booked a ticket that day.
And then, in a blink, it was race day. Confident that I’d break seven hours, and not wanting to be disqualified again, I started at the official race time of 10:45. I had to weave and bob my way through the crowds, and Tim did a live interview with me running on the course at Fourth Avenue, after which they ran the pre-taped interview we had done weeks earlier. I couldn’t have paid for that kind of publicity.
The race was my smoothest marathon yet. Less hopskipping and more out-and-out, leg-over-leg running led to my fastest time ever. I crossed the finish line in 5:52, and I was stoked with the 36-minute improvement. (I can’t take all the credit for the bump. A brilliant prosthetist named Van Phillips had just designed a foot for distance running called the C-Foot. It was a huge technological advance, and I was lucky enough to get one of the prototypes.)
Back in Los Angeles, I fell into a nice groove. I was a good little grad student, making friends, getting good grades, and pseudo-dating a guy from San Diego. (The dating thing was perfect, because a long distance semirelationship meant I’d only have to have a boyfriend on weekends, which left weekdays free for training and homework.) I was in great physical shape, probably the best shape of my life, and was looking for another big goal to conquer, because after four marathons, 26 miles was getting kind of boring.
My roommate was a fellow amputee track athlete named Jami Goldman. She was training for the 2000 Paralympics, and it set my brain a-spinning. Maybe I’ll try the Paralympics again. Maybe there will be enough women for us to have a full, fair race. Maybe I’ll finally win that medal. Plus, I’ve never been to Australia, so why not?
It had been a good three years since I’d done any serious sprinting, and my short distance chops were a bit rusty, so training-wise, I had to pick up where I’d left off five years before. Training for sprints and distance are two very different animals. For long runs, you can pretty much slap on your shoes and go, but for short runs, you need someone to be hands on, to run the stopwatch, to keep an eye on your form, to tell you to “pump your arms, lean forward, have faster feet, only 10 meters left, so come on!”
I couldn’t fly to New York to work with David, so I figured I’d take advantage of what was probably the only logical resource available to me: the USC track team. I popped over to track coach Ron Allice’s office, poked my head in the door, and said, “Hey, I’m Sarah, and I’ve been doing marathons for the last couple years, but my background is in track, and I want to try and get fast again so I can go to the Sydney Games in 2000.”
He said, “Sounds good. Let’s do it.” Ron was amazing. He welcomed me as part of the team—he even got me a locker in the varsity locker room where I could leave my running leg and some shampoo. The whole thing made me feel like I was hanging out with the cool kids. It was a privilege to work out with the likes of Angela Williams, the only person in NCAA history to defend her 100m title for her entire four-year college career. I enjoyed the college track experience I didn’t even know I wanted…rah rah, Trojans! (I have to admit I didn’t wear USC track clothes, not because I lacked school spirit, but rather because dark burgundy and mustard gold don’t look particularly good on me. I’m more into blues and pinks.) I graduated in 2000 with a master’s degree in broadcast journalism, and it was a melancholy moment. I was ready to leave academia, but over the past two years, I’d become an honest-to-goodness Trojan, who loved running on that USC track. Also, what with my great professors and multitude of cool friends, I knew I’d really miss the place.
A few weeks later, I went to Hartford, Connecticut for the Paralympic trials and, long story short, didn’t make the team. Yes, I was kind of bummed I wouldn’t be going to Sydney, but I picked myself up, and started looking for a job. And I got one. I got to go to Australia, not as an athlete, but as an actual, honest-to-goodness professional journalist.
I landed a gig as a field producer for WeMedia, which was doing streaming Internet coverage of the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney. Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen was our reporter, and the he and I worked trackside in the Olympic stadium, covering six to 10 hours worth of track and field a day. We also put together some video packages that were picked up for Fox Sports Network. It was a ton of fun. It was also a ton of work—at one point, I went 28 hours straight, without a real break. I could barely speak, and Dan thought my exhausted ramblings were hilarious. I have little memory of that day, which is no surprise, because by hour 20, my brain was leaking out of my ear.
I knew it was going to be a short-lived position that would conclude when the Games were done. But when my time with WeMedia ended, I was pretty bummed, especially since I had to start looking for a real job. Fortunately, a real job came looking for me.