Gary Bertelsen , 75, Westerville, OH
Gary Bertelsen figures he has good sports genes. His brother Jim played football for the Texas Longhorns and for another five years in the NFL. He walked on the track team at the University of Wisconsin. When told he would be getting scholarship, he trained as hard as he could. “There’s two ways to train- the hard and smart” he explains. “I got the hard work part, not the smart part. I essentially over trained.”
Nonetheless, Gary loved all sports. “I did everything you can do on two feet – softball, golf, football, you name it,” he says. “I was also an addicted runner since three years old and started doing half and full marathons after College.”
Everything changed with a deer hunting accident in 1979. “I bumped my gun while turning on the stand. It fell to the ground and went off. The bullet went through my left leg above the ankle.” Ultimately, the leg was amputated midway between the foot and knee. He now says it was also the luckiest day of his life because there was a doctor in the hunting party.
At first, Gary was devastated. “It took me a year after getting my first prosthesis to make my brain and my body take one running step,” he says. “It was not a linear progression to go through the process that people go through after a traumatic experience. I went back and forth through denial, anger, coping and acceptance before I got on with my life.”
Once he took that step, he didn’t look back. “I started doing 10Ks and half marathons using old, antiquated equipment,” he says. “I’ve run five marathons as an amputee and every one of them kicked my butt. Not only did it damage the leggings inside the prosthesis, I had to walk backwards down steps for two weeks afterwards.”
When running kept doing damage to his residual limb, Gary didn’t sit down. He tried cycling. “I even made my own prosthetic cycling leg with a plywood foot and ski pole pylons laminated to a socket,” he recalls. Then, in 2015, with a much improved prostheses, he decided to try running again and signed up for what he thought was a half marathon run. “Then I read the rules that said if you run one stride you are disqualified, and I thought ‘what the heck is this?’”
Gary had discovered Race Walk. After researching, watching videos and attending a clinic by famed coach Dave McGovern, he knew he had found his way forward. “I just fell in love with the sport and then got into the senior circuit in 2016.”
Gary found he could be competitive racing with a prosthetic lower leg. He usually wins his age division at the state level, and finished 4th and 5th respectively in the M 70-74 1500m and 5000m events at the 2019 National Senior Games presented by Humana, adding he is motivated by more experienced elite age peers like Norm Frable and Richard Campbell.
He laughs when he shares that he is listed by World Masters Rankings at #1 in the 1500m and #2 in the 5000m race walks for his age for the year 2020. “The asterisk is that most of the competitions around the country were canceled, so there were fewer opportunities. And many competitors were damned concerned about going, like me,” he observes. “My wife and I have I have family in Florida and decided to compete at the 2020 Florida Senior Games. I thought they ran the event very well and very safely.”
Rankings aside, Gary is much more focused on his quality of life and continuing in sports. “I feel like I found a way to stay alive and fit as long as I possibly can. It’s incredible exercise. I weigh the same as I was when I graduated high school!”