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San Jose Amputee Gets Second Chance At Ironman Championship

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Jeff Schmidt says not finishing the Kona Ironman in 2012 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Still, in 2013, he aimed to finish what he started. (Published Thursday, Oct 31, 2013)

    A "challenged athlete" is what a triathlete who uses a prosthetic leg is called.

    A magician is what they should call Jeff Schmidt.

    More than once the San Jose triathlete has transformed what some might see as defeat, into victory.

    Jeff's remarkable story begins on a soccer field in the Midwest 15 years ago.  During a playoff game his senior year Jeff's lower, right leg was shattered by a violent tackle.

    It turned out to be an injury that refused to heal.

    For the better part of the next decade Jeff battled with pain and immobility, failed surgeries and drug dependency. It was Jenny, Jeff's wife, who eventually suggested what once was unthinkable.

    "I told him she should think about having his leg amputated," Jenny said.

    It took Jeff a few years to come around to Jenny's way of thinking, but once he did, he went to his doctor and asked for the leg to be cut off. "If something is bothering you in your life," Jeff said, "what do you do? You get rid of it."

    It was Jenny who also suggested, post-amputation, that Jeff train for a triathlon like she was.

    Jeff was fortunate enough in 2012 to win a lottery spot for challenged athletes at the Kona World Ironman Championship in Hawaii.

    In the end, though, the biggest race of Jeff's life turned out to be too big a challenge. A choppy sea during the swim and a heavy head wind on the bike slowed Jeff down. The run portion of the race turned into a walk.

    Miles before the end of the race, officials warned Jeff that he would likely not reach the finish line before the course was closed at midnight. He might as well stop running, they told him.

    Ignoring their advice, Jeff kept going. He had gone too far to give up now.

    A half an hour after midnight Jeff finally reached the end of the course. Workers were dismantling the finish line around him as he crossed it. He was the last participant to cross the line, yet was not an official finisher.

    While Jeff was disappointed at the result, others were impressed with his story. Soon Jeff had teamed up with Berkeley's GU Energy Labs and the Challenged Athletes Foundation to raise money to purchase prosthetic running legs for children who otherwise would not be able to afford them.

    And he was invited back to Kona.

    This time Jeff was determined not just to finish, but to do it hours before the course closed so his friends, family, and newly-gained sponsors would not have to sweat out a close finish.

    Working with a coach, Jeff logged more than five thousand miles on the road and in the water. He participated in ten races leading up to the World Championship.

    On race day, Jeff was ready. "I was feeling prepared. I was feeling calm. I was ready to take on the day."

    The swim and early portion of the bike race only confirmed what Jeff had expected: he felt strong and was making good time.

    But then Jeff's calf muscle began to cramp. "It was very painful," Jeff said. "It was as hard as a fist." Jeff stopped numerous times to try and relax the muscle, but to no avail. The muscle eventually started to spasm, forcing Jeff to go ever more slowly.

    An MRI later revealed that Jeff had a 90 percent of the muscle.

    Ten miles into the run, Jeff realized he had no chance to finish the race before midnight and the wise choice, this time, was to stop running.

    "There were tears," Jeff said. "I was disappointed because I wanted to finish, but I think I was even more disappointed because I felt like I was letting down my sponsors. I still feel that way. It still hurts a little bit."

    Jeff, though, is determined to turn this setback into a success just like he has with others before.

    Jeff says the fact that he has helped to raise almost $80,000 for children's prosthetics makes it all worthwhile.

    He is also as determined as ever to get back to Kona, and conquer the race once and for all.

    "The lesson is this is that you don't give up," Jeff said. "I failed twice at this race, but I will be back one day and I will cross that finish line."

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