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Thursday, August 14, 2008
LIFE OF REILLY

By Rick Reilly

I don't care how liberal you are, how caring and open-minded. If you were swimming the mile in the Pittsburgh Triathlon last month and got passed by a guy with stubs for arms and legs, it had to be deflating.

But I'm here to ease your pain. The guy who Michael Phelpsed you is a marvel, a phenomenon, a wonder. He's the unsinkable Craig Dietz. Literally. You can't sink him. "I'd love to dive and see what it looks like underwater," says the 34-year-old Dietz, "but I can't. I'm too buoyant."

So instead he had to be content with finishing 273rd out of 308 swimmers, beating 35 able-bodied people in the Allegheny River as part of a three-man relay team he called Bob. STARE IF YOU WANT. HE'S PAST CARING.

"Get it?" Dietz says. "Bob? It's like, what do you call a man with no arms or legs in a ditch? Phil! Water-skiing? Skip!"

Don't blame me! This is how Craig Dietz is! He teases himself to put you at ease. Except when he tries to freak you out. One time in college, at a Duquesne frat's haunted house, he put fake blood all over his four stubs, had his buddy fire up a chain saw and came hopping out with the buddy chasing him. The sorority girls nearly fainted.

Stare at him if you want. He's past caring. He's got too much to do. He works as a lawyer for the city of Pittsburgh. He bowls, skis, hunts (bagged an eight-point buck once), fishes, kicks butt at mini golf, plays volleyball (hits the ball off his head), jams on the drums, has a girlfriend and drives his own van (with a fake license plate that reads, look, mom! no hands!). Mostly, he makes you feel like a worthless, prechewed slab of meat, wasting your able-bodied life eating Cheetos and watching Tila Tequila.

When Craig was born with stubs where his arms and legs should have been because of a genetic fluke, even his dad never dreamed he'd do all this. "I went through a tough time," says Gary Dietz, a retired telephone worker from St. Mary's, Pa. "I was lost. I just kept thinking, What's gonna happen to this poor little guy?" Gary found solace in the bottle, until the family doctor told him to snap out of it—and cut back on the booze. From that moment on, "anything I wanted to do, my dad made it happen," Craig says. When Craig wanted to ride a trike like the other kids, Gary got an old one from the junkman, bent the arms so Craig could steer, reset the seat so he could push off the ground with his stub and set him loose. Nothing has stopped them since.

To bowl, the Unsinkable Dietz picks up the ball between his size-20 neck and massive right shoulder, hops toward the line and flings it. To hunt, he neck-grips a stick that's wired into the trigger housing of a rifle, which is mounted on an old spinning stool. To drum, he bangs an electric kit with a stick wedged between his head and shoulder and works a pedal drum with his stub. "My mom [Joyce] wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself," he says. "Her favorite saying was 'Why can't he?' "

And so, he usually can. Just about anything you can do for yourself Dietz can do for himself, including cooking, cleaning and giving people crap. Sometimes, when he jumps into his wheelchair or climbs out of a seat in a restaurant, he'll notice somebody's been staring the whole time and joke, "I know. Pretty agile for a fat guy, huh?"

Even his friends and co-workers have to shake their heads sometimes. Before the triathlon, when Dietz asked buddy Jim Miller (above right) to do the biking and law clerk Ned Mulcahy to do the running, with Dietz picking up the swim, Mulcahy admits his first thought was, How?

With goggles, a flipper on the right stub and his muscles wriggling as fast as possible, that's how. "As Craig was getting in, there was this audible silence as everyone watched him," Mulcahy recalls. "And then, as soon as he started swimming, it put the biggest smile on people's faces."

Until he started passing them. "I gotta tell you," Dietz says, "that felt good."

Since then, he's been snowed under by people calling him a hero and an inspiration and has even been asked to speak to a couple of groups. All of which bugs him. "I don't really want to be portrayed as a champion for the disabled," Dietz says. "Contrary to what people might think, my favorite subject to talk about is not how amazing I am."

Good, because now it's ours.