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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Triathlete Sarah Reinertsen tells her story to middle school students attending a leadership conference at Bakersfield College. Reinertsen became the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete in the Hawaii Ironman competition back in 2005.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Amputee Sarah Reinertsen talks about courage and never giving up to middle school students at a leadership conference at Bakersfield College. Reinertsen is a triathlete and was the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman competition back in 2005.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Can't actually say he's "dog tired", but fourteen-year-old Connor Dodge did take a break from his duties as a bulldog at the Leadership Conference being held at Bakersfield College for middle school students.

A year after Sarah Reinertsen's leg was amputated at the age of 6 due to a tissue disorder she was born with, her parents signed her up for a soccer league.

She was fully capable of playing with her prosthetic leg, but the coach wouldn't let her run drills or participate in scrimmage games at the team's weekly practices. Instead, he told her to go kick a ball against a wall by herself.

Reinertsen didn't let it discourage her. In 2005, she become the first female above-the-knee amputee to complete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The grueling triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run.

Now 37, Reinertsen is still competing in (and often winning) world-class athletic events such as the Paralympic Games and International Triathlon Union races. She's appeared on the cover of ESPN Magazine, was a contestant on the 2010 season of television's "The Amazing Race," and even has a Nike shoe for prosthetics named after her.

More than 500 students from 79 schools all over the county heard Reinertsen's story, and those of other inspiring speakers, at the Kern County Middle Grades Student Leadership conference Friday on the campus of Bakersfield College.

Reinertsen opened her address with a short video clip of her finishing the bicycle leg of the Iron Man competition in 2004. She was eliminated after finishing 15 minutes past the deadline, and upon learning that, burst into tears.

"Not the clip you were expecting, was it?" Reinertsen asked the audience of students, a glint in her eye.

If you look on the Iron Man's official rankings for that year, the letters DNF are next to her name, Reinertsen said. That stands for "did not finish."

"It was devastating," Reinertsen recalled. "It was kind of a bummer, but I realized that a DNF was a whole lot better than a DNS. Did not start."

It took her a little while to get there, though. Initially, Reinertsen was so distraught that she didn't even want to go to the awards ceremony for the winners. But her mother pushed her there, just as she had pushed Reinertsen all her life.

"My parents treated me like any other kid," she said. "My mother didn't always pick me up when I fell. She said, 'Sarah is going to pick herself up.' It was a really important life lesson for me."

Reinertsen came from a family of athletes. Her father ran marathons and used to drag his children to them to cheer him on throughout her childhood. At one of those races, Reinertsen saw a woman with one leg run by well ahead of her two-legged father and made a point to meet het.

She found the lady at the finish line, and that's how she learned that disabled people could not only compete, but excel.

At 11 years old, Reinertsen wrote in a class essay she'd been assigned at school that she would make it to the Paralympics one day. As an adult, she did make it, and was favored to win her first year there, but tripped out of the starting gate of a 100-meter race.

Reinertsen was so disappointed and angry that she stopped running for a few years. But she met another disabled athlete at a facility that helps maintain prosthetics (which need to be oiled and lubricated regularly). He was a triathlete, and he inspired her to return to sports.

It didn't matter that he was a man and she was a woman, or that he was 6-foot-4 and she was an even 5 feet tall. It didn't even matter that she'd never ridden a bike, and had yet to progress beyond dog paddling in a pool. If he could do it, she could do it, she decided.

Reinertsen learned cycling on a stationery bike, and joined a gym with a pool to teach herself how to swim. It was a year before she used her membership, though. For a while she was too embarrassed to go there and remove her prosthetic leg -- which isn't waterproof -- in front of strangers.

"I got the bill, and after a year of paying for a pool I wasn't using, I had a little talk with myself," Reinertsen said. "I am not saying don't feel the fear, but don't let it stop you."

Thirteen years after setting the goal to finish the Iron Man competition, Reinertsen completed it. She's been a force in elite athletics ever since.

"I don't just tell my story to impress you, but rather I want to impress upon you the possibilities that exist in your own life, for you to look inside yourself," Reinertsen said. "For you to look inside yourself and realize the potential that you have."