Amputees seek challenge of triathlon

This morning, hundreds of women will compete in the Ramblin' Rose Triathlon in Huntersville.

For two of them, life has changed significantly since 2010, when they each lost a leg below the knee. Within months of being fitted with prosthetic legs, both took on not only the challenge of re-learning life with a prosthesis but also training for their first-ever triathlon.

"I've always been competitive and had ambition and desire," said Karen Piro, 37, of Huntersville. "The amputation made me want to do it more.

It was another challenge I saw that I could overcome."

In mid-2010, Piro discovered a lump on her ankle while she was pregnant with her third child. When tests showed it was cancer, she decided to have her leg amputated.

"I could have become angry or shut down," Piro said, "or I could have collected those emotions and pushed myself in a more positive direction. I think the more difficult the challenge, the more inspired I've become."

Piro and Janelle Hansberger, 37, of Charlotte, also a below-knee amputee, have trained for the Ramblin' Rose with Cadie Jessup, whose leg was amputated in late 2009 after complications from blood clots.

Jessup, who lives in Charlotte and recently climbed Mt. Shasta in northern California and competed in the Ramblin' Rose Triathlon in Winston-Salem last year, has provided pointers and answered questions for the women about swimming, biking and running with a prosthetic leg.

Mike Jenks, a certified prosthetist orthotist who oversees six Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics practices in the area, said the women should expect an overwhelming response from triathlon spectators today. When one of his clients, an 11-year-old boy with two leg amputations, competed in a kids triathlon earlier this year, other kids joined him on the course when he began to tire.

"I think these ladies forget how awesome they are and how much they've overcome," Jenks said.

Finding hope

In late 2010, Hansberger dropped a computer tower on her foot, opening a wound. It became infected with a rare, flesh-eating bacteria, which led to amputation in October.

While Hansberger was recovering, Jessup, a friend of a friend, came to visit, and the two bonded immediately.

Jessup, 35, recently had completed Getting2Tri, a camp in Atlanta that teaches amputees and people in wheelchairs how to swim, bike and run in preparation for triathlons and races.

Like Jessup, Hansberger and Piro were athletes before their amputations. Hansberger was eager to get out and play with her two small children again.

"Cadie just gave me a lot of hope and told me about all of the activities she had been involved in," Hansberger said.

Hansberger went to Getting2Tri and joined the YMCA.

"I think I'm doing (Ramblin' Rose) to prove to myself that I can do it.," she said. "It's a really positive goal for me and something positive in my life that I can work toward."

Competing with a prosthetic leg brings its own challenges.

Hansberger and Piro will swim without prosthetic legs, and they will change legs between cycling and running.

Piro said that while competing in a triathlon is an achievement for amputees, so are everyday activities.

"I think people lose sight of that."