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She's good to go Amputee marathoner outruns expectations

By the time she was 40 years old, Lindsay Nielsen had reclaimed most things in her life.

She had overcome the pain and other obstacles put in her way after she lost her left leg below the knee at age 14 in a train accident.

She got married and had two kids, became a psychotherapist and a writer. But there was one last thing she had to do -- regain her athleticism.

So she took to the road in 1995 and became one of the best female amputee marathoners in the world and the first leg-amputee to complete an Ironman triathlon.

Now 50, the Minnesota native will share her story at the University at Buffalo on Tuesday as part of the school's celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day. She will speak at 8 a.m. at the UB Student Union Theater. The event is open to the public.

"Running was one of the first losses I experienced with my foot," Nielsen said. "I was athletic before the accident, but the technology at the time was such that I really couldn't run. When I was turning 40, I thought about my life and what I had done and what I hadn't done yet.

"I always loved the marathon. I'd watch the marathon [in Minneapolis] every year and I'd end up in tears. I decided I needed to start running. Of course I got injured right away but it forced me to connect with other amputees to find out how they did it. In a way, it was my coming out. I had spent most of life passing, getting by so people wouldn't notice me. There's no way when I'm running that people aren't going to notice my leg. It's a pretty cool leg."

Nielsen lost half her leg as an eighth-grader. There were train tracks between her home and school and she and her friends often played around the trains on their way home in the afternoon. In the accident, she was climbing on the coupling of a stopped freight train when it started moving. The coupling smashed her foot.

The doctors couldn't save her foot and had to amputate.

With alcoholic parents, she turned to drugs for comfort and recreation. Her recollections of that difficult time help keep her sane when the publicity of her accomplishments as an amputee runner causes embarrassment.

"I have mixed feeling about the subject of publicity because it's embarrassing," Nielsen said. "But after the first article was written about me in 1995, a little girl came up to me and wanted my autograph. Her mother said she kept my picture by her bed and looked at it every night. She was an amputee missing both feet and she said she was going to marathon like I did. I felt that would have made the difference for me when I was a kid. If I had sports after my injury I don't believe I would have turned to getting high. I had nothing to fill all those needs and manage my feelings. Sport is a great way to do that."

When she finally did turn to sports she didn't just participate, she excelled. In 1997, two years after she started running, Nielsen set the world record time for the marathon by a female amputee. She went on to compete in track championships for disabled athletes, winning numerous gold medals at national and international events.

But the records she set were beginning to be broken in 1999. As a self-described high achiever with a competitive streak, she decided to start training for triathlons. If she could become the first female leg amputee to finish an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run) she would always have the title as first.

She accomplished that goal, finishing an Ironman in Madison, Wis., in 2004. How does she do a triathlon? She swims without prosthesis, attaches a running prosthesis to get to the bike change area, changes her leg to her biking prosthesis, then changes back into her running prosthesis to finish the race.

While she takes her status as an inspirational athlete seriously, she makes a point that as a challenged athlete she has mixed feelings about that status.

"Being an inspiration just because you got up in the morning, that isn't enough. When I feel like I've earned it and that's why I'm getting the recognition, I feel fine with it. I don't want somebody to give me that just because I have a disability and I show up. It's not just enough to show up and that's just my opinion. I think honoring challenged athletes if they just show up is a way to not take them seriously. I love being an inspiration when I'm out [running] in front of somebody and I beat them."

For more information on Nielsen's keynote address, contact Dawn Reed at UB at 645-6263 or at dawnreed@buffalo.edu.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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