Feature by Jeff Commings
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, June 14. CRAIG Dietz emerged from the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay Sunday, exhausted but elated that he completed the 4.4-mile swim in the annual Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.
With all the emotions coming over him on the shore, he didn't notice that he had beaten 48 other swimmers to the finish — a noteworthy accomplishment considering Dietz was born without arms or legs.
“My goal was to finish … to not end my swim in a boat,” said Dietz, who placed 592nd out of 640 competitors in a time of three hours, three minutes and 41 seconds. “To finish ahead of anybody is gravy.”
Dietz made his Chesapeake Bay debut in 2011, but was pulled from the water when organizers stopped the race due to lightning and choppy conditions after three hours. Dietz was only momentarily beaten down by not finishing.
“It (the Chesapeake Bay swim) was the crown jewel I had been eyeing for a few years,” he said. “As a competitive person, when something kicks your butt, you do what you can to go back and kick its butt.”
Shortly after last year's swim, he joined a Masters group for the first time and found that the interval training he did twice a week increased his cardiovascular capacity and helped him push past his perceived physical limits. On other days, he would do the nonstop one-hour swim he had been doing for years.
His goal this year was to not only finish the race, but complete it in less than three hours and 30 minutes, which is 15 minutes faster than the race's cutoff time.
“When it really hit me (that I would finish) was when I came out from under the (William Preston Lane Jr., Memorial Bridge), which is where I was stopped last year,” Dietz said. “I started to get a tear in my eye because I realized I was going to finish this thing.”
Open water racing is not new to the 38-year-old Dietz. His first race was in the 2008 Pittsburgh Triathlon, an Olympic-distance event, in which he swam 1500 meters as part of a relay. Though he had swum recreationally for most of his life, Dietz found a new passion for competitive swimming.
“I was living in Pittsburgh at the time and feeling a little stale with life and wanted a new challenge,” he said. “I did it on a whim, and got hooked right away.”
With the help of a special flipper attached the stump of his right leg, Dietz is able to traverse any open water course on his back. He is often guided along the course with the help of a friend next to him in a kayak. That's what he's used as a relay swimmer in half-Ironman triathlons and various open water swims since that first one in 2008.
Open water racing has done more for Dietz than provide him with an outlet for his competitive nature as a self-described endurance athlete. Almost two years ago, he ditched his career as an attorney to travel the country as a motivational speaker, a gig he landed soon after national media learned of his swimming accomplishments. He talks with middle school and high school kids about beating the odds, and also inspires adults at corporate engagements.
“It wasn't something I had thought about doing, but when the phones started ringing I couldn't pass it up,” he said.
Dietz isn't planning on passing up the Chesapeake Bay swim next year, calling it “an addictive race.” And though it's the farthest he has swum in a competition, he's not seriously entertaining the thought of a 10-kilometer swim anytime soon.
“There is the mentality of pushing yourself,” he said with a laugh, “but there's also the Clint Eastwood mentality that a man has got to know his limitations.”
Send feature story ideas to Jeff Commings at firstname.lastname@example.org.