He won't back down

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ELIZABETHVILLE - As Tom Petty's song, "I Won't Back Down," played, images of a limbless little boy filled the screen.

Viewers saw the boy riding on a bicycle, fishing, hunting, playing drums, swimming, bowling, skiing, and eventually growing older, and driving.

The audience was provided with a glimpse of a successful, active life most had never imagined possible.

Craig Dietz didn't back down.

He brought his life into focus during a guest presentation September 19 before Upper Dauphin Area (UDA) middle school and high school students. Dietz, who now works as a motivational speaker, was born without any limbs due to a genetic disorder.

He stressed the importance of students defining their own potential. Dietz also shared two life lessons: to never judge a book by its cover, and it's essential to have the right tool for the job.

"People vastly underestimated my potential based solely on my appearance," he said.

In addition to a dressing stick, Dietz said another tool he uses in life is a sense of humor. He encouraged students to not take themselves so seriously and to "Keep It Simple, Silly (K.I.S.S.)".

Part of that humor included the vanity plate he said he got on his first van once he acquired his drivers' license at age 21 which said, "Look mom, no hands."

Dietz drives a custom-controlled van with secondary controls like window operation located on his headrest, and a joy stick located on his right side, which he operates with his shoulder. The joy stick controls primary functions, like acceleration, braking, and turning.

Dietz, who now resides with his wife in Hummelstown, has lived independently since high school. He graduated from Duquesne University with a BA in political science in 1996 and earned his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1999, passing the bar exam on his first try. He worked as the City of Harrisburg's Assistant City Solicitor until 2006, when he took the same position with Pittsburgh.

Since 2008, Dietz has competed in the Pittsburgh Triathlon. This June, Dietz became the first quadruple amputee to swim across the Chesapeake Bay. He finished the feat, crossing the 4.4-mile swim in just under three hours, according to his website, www.craigspeaks.com.

After the presentation, several UDA students waved at Dietz as they passed by, many of them telling him they loved the program.

"It really touched me," said Celine Sitlinger, 13, of Gratz. "I never experienced anything like that and he impressed me because of all he accomplished," she said.

Sarah Troutman, another UDA 8th-grader, said it was one of the best presentations she's attended.

"I kinda felt bad for him at first, but he didn't want you to feel bad for him. He taught me that you shouldn't be ashamed of who you are," said Troutman, 13, of Millersburg.

Zachary Johns, 13, of Elizabethville, said, "I thought he wasn't going to be able to do what he did. He explained things well and taught us not to judge people," he said.

Meanwhile, Dietz's resilience is what caught the attention of 8th-grader Brandon Shade. "He showed us why we should never give up," said Shade, 13, of Elizabethville.

Dietz said a lot of questions he gets from kids are about bullying. "I've had enough positive influences in my life that bullying didn't affect me too much," he said.

He said one of the most memorable questions he's ever been asked by a student was about where all his confidence comes from. Dietz tells them it's his alter-ego that enables him to be on stage in front of a crowd.

After his UDA presentation, Dietz was scheduled to be a speaker at the 2012 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Longbeach, CA, on September 21-22. Dietz said he was looking forward to the conference and meeting one of the fellow guests, Diana Nyad, the International Swimming Hall of Fame and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame dual inductee.

Upon reflection, Dietz said becoming a public speaker was not something he initially set out to do.

Once he started training for his swimming competitions, more people became interested in him, more media representatives started following him, and people just started calling him, he said.

"I realized the impact of my words and that encouraged me to keep on doing it," he said.

It was the words Dietz delivered during a prior in-service program with UDA's staff that prompted the district to call him back for a presentation for students.

"In addition to the messages delivered to our staff, Craig helped our students better understand the importance of respecting life and those who may be different than the norm," said Superintendent Paul Caputo. "Bullying, ostracizing and shunning those who may be different or affirmed in some way is wrong and will not only cause unnecessary hurt to that person but possibly deprive ourselves from forging a relationship or friendship that will enrich our own lives," Caputo said.

Dietz has been featured on several nationally-televised shows, and provides programs for schools, churches and business and community groups. Look for his appearance on the new Marie Osmond Talk Show, tentatively scheduled to air in October, and check updates on his website at www.craigspeaks.com.

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