Craig’s list Quadruple amputee shares principles of life with Warwick Middle School students

By on March 6, 2013

By: ROCHELLE A. SHENK Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

Photos by Dennis BickslerThe Lititz Sportsmen's Association hosted its annual Kids' Fishing Derby, March 31, in Warwick Township Riparian Park, the first day of trout season for Pennsylvania's southeastern region.

If Craig Dietz’s life has a theme song it most likely would be Tom Petty’s "I Won’t Back Down."

The 38-year-old Hummelstown resident was born without limbs, but that hasn’t deterred him. A municipal lawyer, he bowled in a league, hunts, fishes, played percussion in the high school band, and in June 2012, he became the first quadruple amputee to swim across the Chesapeake Bay.

"I believe each of you has the ability to define your own potential," he told 750 seventh and eight grade students during two assemblies at Warwick Middle School last Friday.

Dietz, who grew up in St. Marys (Elk County), said that the most valuable asset in his life has been his family — parents, two sisters and a brother.

"They’ve always been supportive. From the time my mom took me home from the hospital, she had the same expectation for me that she had for my siblings — that I was going to define my own path as an independent person," he stressed.

Dietz explained that he has several key principles for his life:

? KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly). "The simplest lessons we learn in life tend to be the most important throughout your life"

? You should never judge a book by its cover. "The most common assumption about me is ‘look at that poor man in the wheelchair,’ but I’m not stuck in the wheelchair," he said as he suited actions to words.

? It is important to have the right tool for the situation. "As a kid I spent a lot of time learning how to use prosthetic arms, but the best thing I use is my stick. It’s really called a dressing stick, but I creatively call it my stick and I use it for many tasks," he said.

He also advised students that having a strong sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself is important. "Life can be funny when you least expect it. It’s the comedy that life can offer that helps me get through the bad times," he said.

An example of his humor can be seen in one of several stories that he shared.

"My van is a tool that has had the biggest impact on the quality of my life. I know you’re all wondering ‘Dude, how can you drive?’ but I have a specially equipped van. After I got my driver’s license, my mom got me a vanity plate (for the front) that says ‘look ma, no hands’," Dietz said with a smile.

He also stressed that it’s important to "live your life. Don’t let your life live you."

"I have never defined myself as a person with disabilities. Each one of us faces challenges of some kind," he said.

Throughout his life, he’s kept challenging himself and encourages others to constantly challenge themselves and to keep trying. "You should never compare yourself to the best others can do, but to the best that you can do," he stressed.

Dietz started bowling in a Special Olympics league when he was 12.

"I got out of that and joined a regular league since I wanted to throw the ball down the alley myself. I used my shoulder to throw the ball, which unlike most bowling balls does not have any holes in it," he explained. Hunting is a big thing in his area and in his family, so he began hunting when he was 12. His system may have some modifications such as using a "stick" to pull the trigger, but it works. He’s bagged a number of deer including an 8-point buck.

Like any hunter he’s proud of that accomplishment. But that is one of many accomplishments. He graduated high school in 1992, before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1994.

"I was advised to attend Edinboro (University), because that was the only college in the area that was handicap accessible. But I wanted the challenge," he said.

He holds a B.A. in political Science from Duquesne University and graduated from the Pittsburgh School of Law. He passed the bar exam on his first attempt, without any special accommodations.

"Whether you have arms and legs or not, law school is three years of misery," he jokingly said, adding that the bar exam is grueling. It’s a two-day exam with eight-hours each day.

"In class we had three-hour exams. I do tire quicker than others, and I could have asked for an accommodation but decided not to. Instead, I studied and practiced for the bar exam for two months," he proudly stated.

Dietz has always enjoyed being in the water. But it wasn’t until he heard some friends talking about the Pittsburgh Triathlon, which is setup as a relay, that he decided to compete in the swimming event. With a few months to train, he first competed in the event in 2008, and has competed every year since then. He said that his time that year was faster than 35 able-bodied swimmers. Last year, his team finished fourth out of 18.

That event served as the springboard to other competitions including Half Iron Man Relays, which have a 1.2-mile swim competition, and 2-mile swim competitions. In 2011, Dietz decided to further challenge himself by entering into the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, a 4.4-mile swim across the Chesapeake Bay that starts at the beach at Sandy Point State Park (five miles northeast of Annapolis) and extends eastward between the two spans of the William Preston Lane, Jr., Memorial Bridge (also known as the Bay Bridge) to finish at Kent Island.

"The Chesapeake Bay is a very hostile place — there’s tidal action to consider and it’s salt water. That first time I had a mile to go when all the swimmers were pulled from the water because of lightning strikes on the other side. It was very grueling, and I told myself that I would not do it again. But the next year I did and I completed the race," he said.

He told students that when he competes in events, he seeks to learn something from every event.

"There are no failures in life, if we learn from that experience and then try to do better," Dietz stressed.

Dietz’s presentation was underwritten by the Middle School’s student council. After the presentation seventh grade student and student council member Katie Pyle said that what Dietz has accomplished is amazing.

"I liked what he said about not letting your circumstances define you and will try to put that to use in my life," Pyle said.

Warwick Middle School principal Mike Smith said that when Dietz moved to the Hummelstown area two years ago, he reached out to area school districts. It took time to work out scheduling and funding.

"I hope that students left his presentation understanding that you can overcome challenges," he said.

Read more about Craig’s extraordinary life at More CRAIG DIETZ, page A3

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