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Register names Outdoor Sportsperson of the Year

By David Whiting/ The Orange County Register / Published: Dec. 31, 2012


Beth Sanden competes in the cycling portion of the 2010 San Diego Triathlon Challenge in La Jolla.Whether you trekked to the North Pole, entered your first 5K or took the dog for daily walks in 2012, you deserve congratulations for perseverance.

Heck, just getting outdoors every now and then is an accomplishment. Consider how many people don't. Ever.

So it's likely that you – yes, you – deserve being named Outdoor Sportsperson of the Year. But my rules only allow one winner.

With imaginary trumpets blaring, the Orange County Register's Outdoor Sportsperson for 2012 is...Beth Sanden of San Clemente.

In 2012, Sanden finished three marathons on three different continents: North America, Oceana, Africa.

With a goal of completing a marathon on each of the world's seven continents, in 2011 she knocked off Asia by finishing a marathon on the Great Wall of China.

But those accomplishments aren't why Sanden deserves being named Outdoor Sportsperson of the Year.

Sanden isn't just an athlete. She's also a coach. Her enthusiasm is infectious. And she raises thousands of dollars to help others discover hope and reinvent themselves in the natural world.

But even those accomplishments aren't why Sanden deserves recognition.

Sanden gets the shout-out because she shows us the infinite power of the human spirit.


Sanden is one of those humans stuffed with positive energy. No matter what.

She doesn't see problems. She sees solutions. She doesn't see obstacles. She sees challenges.

Watch the video of Sanden struggling through the marathon on China's Great Wall. Understand, the wall follows the crests of an endless series of mountains. Stairs are so steep they should be called a ladder.

Now understand that more than a decade ago Sanden was a world-class athlete. She beat so many Ironman triathletes, she qualified for the world championship in Kona.

But on a training ride in 2002, Sanden rounded a corner and hit gravel. She wiped out, shattering two vertebrae and suffering a concussion.

Instantly, her life changed.

Sanden became a paraplegic. After years of determined training, her left leg remains useless, the right leg nearly so.

There's a video of her marathon in China. Twenty of the 26.2 miles are on the Great Wall.

Over and over, Sanden wobbles, nearly falls and regains her balance with a walker.

Up and down she goes. There are no runners in sight. They are long gone. As the day wears on, Sanden pushes on by any means necessary – walker, cane, hand cycle – working the muscles that remain to the max.

A by-passer waves. Clutching her walker, Sanden's unable to throw her trademark kisses. Still, she smiles and manages a cheery thank you.

Sanden's videographer also deserves a shout out. That would be her husband, Burt; their marriage a true partnership. Burt goes the distance documenting the event.

Seven hours, 20 minutes later, Sanden crosses the finish line. The parking lot is nearly empty.

How tough is the marathon in China? Consider that Sanden zoomed Boston in two hours, 34 minutes


It is October 2006, and I walk with Sanden through the early registration area in La Jolla for the Challenged Athletes Foundation's annual triathlon.

The foundation is a nonprofit that raises funds to provide equipment and training to help people with disabilities pursue sports. Sanden's commitment to the Challenged Athletes Foundation is obvious in the smiles. She knows nearly everyone, and nearly everyone knows her.

Virginia Tinley, wife of Ironman champion Scott Tinley, greets Sanden with a hug. Sanden beams.

It turns out Sanden has been raising funds for the Challenged Athletes Foundation for several years. And as the next seven years unfold, Sanden will continue to raise money.

She misses the foundation's triathlon challenge only one year, 2007 – the year the event was canceled because of massive wildfires in San Diego.

In 2008, she invites me to join her triathlon team. I ride the bike leg. Sanden tackles both the swim and the run, the latter using her hand cycle.

At the triathlon in 2009, Sanden spots me and asks if I need anything. I look down at Sanden on her hand cycle and shake my head, wondering how she manages to take care of her own needs as well as those of so many others.

The following year in La Jolla, Sanden introduces me to one of her clients, Greg Tyler, a young man from Mission Viejo who lost an arm in a motorcycle accident. With Sanden's coaching, Tyler has entered the world of triathlon.

As she finishes swimming in the ocean, volunteers carry Sanden up stairs winding their way up a cliff. There was a time when Sanden could have run those stairs. But instead of living in the past, she waves to the crowd.

And the crowd cheers.

In 2010, she smokes the Boston Marathon, beating out another hand cycler 20 years her junior by four seconds

Since her injury, she's competed in some 50 triathlons and more than two-dozen marathons using her handcycle.

Yes, Sanden's competitive fires burn hot.


A mother of two daughters, Sanden tells me after one event: "I have been blessed to have my family and friends rally around me. They all helped me come so far."

Sanden pays it forward in many ways, including training able-bodied as well as challenged athletes.

In 2011 at a Challenged Athletes Foundation race, Sanden introduces me to another of her clients, Matt Neustadt, a 12-year-old Tustin boy who lost the use of his legs after suffering a rare congenital malformation called a neurenteric cyst.

Neustadt blows through the wheelie course.

In the last two years alone, Sanden has raised more than $10,000 for the foundation while also raising awareness about how much challenged athletes can accomplish.

Consider her February marathon in Tanzania, a land of rough roads that often turn to nothing but dirt and rock. The last eight miles was uphill. With a hand cycle, Sanden's race took nearly twice as long as her Boston Marathon.

After Africa, here's what Sanden told Register reporter Fred Swegles: "The challenges were the roads being full of potholes, speed bumps and the traffic spewing exhaust...lots of mud and gravel along the way in my eyes and a long uphill grind."

Completing the Ross Marathon in Tasmania was a little easier. There, she crossed the finish line in 3:32.

Ahead are Europe, South America and Antarctica, where Sanden expects to use something called a push ski.

There is no stopping this mother, wife, fundraiser, coach, athlete and Register Sportsperson of 2102.

Congratulations, Beth Sanden.

David Whiting's column appears four days a week;