By Mike Gustafson//Correpondent
Craig Dietz was born without arms and legs. This did not stop him from becoming an accomplished open water swimmer. Craig recently swum across the Chesapeake Bay, a 4.4 mile open water swim, becoming the first person with no arms and no legs to do so. When he’s not inspiring the world with his actions, he inspires the world with his voice. Craig is also a lawyer, motivational speaker, bowler, hunter, volleyball player, and just about anything else under the moon. Craig lives his life by defining himself not by his circumstances, but how his circumstances do not define him. He has been featured in a plethora of talk shows and news clips, including this fantastic 10-minute video on ESPN. It’s a must watch. Or read this great article by Swimming World’s Jeff Commings on Dietz’s Chesapeake Bay swim.
This week, I caught up with Craig to talk a little swimming, how he got started in the sport, and what his future aspirations are. As always, Craig was just as inspiring as ever…
When did you first learn begin to swim?
I’ve been swimming since I was a little kid. I always loved being in the water. When I was about somewhere around 8 or 10, a lifeguard approached me at a beach at a state park and asked me if I’d ever thought about wearing a scuba flipper on my right foot. He had one, I tried it out. That’s how I started using the scuba flipper. Before that, I was in the water with a lifejacket on, and then the flipper made me more mobile. When I was a teenager, I lost the lifejacket and realized I could stay afloat without it. I’ve always been swimming. It’s an evolving thing.
What made you love the water so much?
I don’t really know. There’s just something therapeutic about it. I don’t really know what exactly it is for me. I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s always been fun for me. For me, it’s something I can do. I can’t go out there and jog around the block. It’s something that is adaptable.
I read you didn’t start swimming open water until 2008. What made you decide to start?
Again, I don’t really know. I had an epiphany. It was really, honestly, after I got out of law school and college, I had done some lap swimming in the pools. When I got out of law school, I joined a gym and did some lap swimming to stay in shape. It was always something I wanted to do, doing an endurance swim. I don’t know what happened. A few people I was working with were doing a triathlon, and I didn’t know you could do it by relay. I found they were doing that by relay, and I think I was a little stagnant and looking for a new challenge.
I know you swam the 4.4 mile Chesapeake Bay swim. Is that the hardest swim you’ve done?
That was the crown jewel.
How do you train? What is your swimming training schedule like?
This year, my training regimen took on a whole new life. I got hooked up with a Masters group, a group of Masters swimmers. I train twice a week with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and swim for an hour. This is the first year I really discovered how to do the interval workouts, and incorporate the intervals. So what I’d do is two nights a week with the Masters, then on the weekend, I’d do a long swim. A long, steady swim without any stops. It graduated up each week, 500 or 1000 meters each week. Then Monday I’d do a recover swim, then start over on Tuesday.
Do you ever compete in any “pool” events?
I don’t turn well. I don’t do the flip turn, I never figured that out. I don’t turn well in the pool. For me, I don’t know. I don’t get kicks out of that. For me, the pool is the necessary part of training for open water.
When you compete at these open water events, what sorts of things do you hear from competitors? And I know open water swimming is a rough sport – do you ever get kicked around, hit in the head?
Whenever I enter a race, I email the race director personally and explain my situation to them. I don’t ask for significant accommodations or anything like that. I want them to be aware of that situation. If there are concerns raised, they can bring them up to me. When I was doing the Bay swim, I attempted the Bay twice. I succeeded this year. Last year I was pulled due to weather after 3 hours. Pretty much any event I do, people will come up to me curious at first. I’ll show them the flipper and how I do it. Then they are really cool about it, really supportive about it. Glad to see me out there. I have gotten kicked in the head a few times. In the Bay this year, I work with the race director to make things as safe as possible for me. The Bay swim is a beach start. It’s a stampede of 350 people on the beach. The race director gave me a 5 minute head start – they started my time when I started, it counted the same, but he started me 5 minutes ahead of the heard. Which was good because I avoided the stampede.
But what that means, in the Bay swim, they shut that channel down, so they have a strict time limit on the amount of time it can be shut down. It would be much better for me to start 5 minutes later than before, but because of the time restrictions – the majority of the people pass me. I avoid the stampede but between mile one and mile two, I’m getting swamped by people swimming by me, on me, and people don’t pay attention to what they are doing. This year I was punched in the face. They punched me right in the nose. [Laughs.] Several events I do are in water. I'll find [a spot where there aren't other swimmers.] I'm not trying to win anything. I don't need to get in front. I find the back [of the pack] or a corner [of the pack.] But when I do that, I am faster than some people out there. I have a tendency to swim up on people. I’m on my back, so I can’t see where I’m going. The worst was getting smacked in the nose. I know it wasn’t intentional though.
You’ve talked about your experiences to groups and schools. What’s the one message you want to convey to people?
I do a lot of motivational speaking, and the main message I try to convey is, all I’ve done with my life is try to not allow the challenges I face to define who I am. That’s something everyone can do. Everyone faces challenges in their lives – whether they are physical or mental. The main message I give out there is to take control of your life, and define your life rather than allowing your circumstances to define who you are.
What goals do you have in the future involving open water swimming? Do you have a particular race in mind?
Well, my newest one I haven’t quite signed up for that I’m researching on is an Alcatraz swim. The 4.4 or 5 or 6 miles is about as far as I can go with it. As far as I care to go with it, as far as distance goes. Now, there are some amazing venues for open water swims. I’m looking at venues. I was at an open water swimming conference in September. There are people all over the world doing these swims. I’m looking to expand the venues I swim. I visited San Francisco several years ago. I didn’t take a tour of Alcatraz, but I’ve always had intrigue – the prison and the island and people trying to escape and swim off. It looks like cold water. They have several swims from the Rock.
What’s your advice to anyone reading this, who may have some obstacle or adversity to overcome?
Again, it ties in with my message. Chase your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. The reality is, there are things you can’t do, but don’t let people tell you that. Don’t be afraid to try. A lot of people are afraid to try because they don’t want to fail. To me, the only failure is not trying. Whether you succeed or not, if you try and have life experience and learn something, you succeed.