Craig DeMartino: Winner in the Extremity Games

Five years ago, Craig DeMartino lost part of his right leg when he fell in a mountain-climbing accident. Now he's a double gold-medal winner at the Extremity Games, an extreme sports competition for athletes missing limbs.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

There was an even more extreme competition last weekend in Orlando, Florida. The Extremity Games were held there. That's extremity in both senses of the word. For one thing, the events were definitely extreme; for another, each contestant was missing one or more extremities.

One man with no limbs did a headstand on his skateboard. Another used what little was left of his right arm to race up a rock-climbing wall. He finished second in that event to Craig DeMartino. For his part, Craig DeMartino won two gold medals at the Extremity Games and he's in Greeley, Colorado.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. CRAIG DeMARTINO (Gold Medal Winner, Extremity Games): Thank you very much for having me.

ROBERTS: Congratulations on your victories. What events did you medal in?

Mr. DeMARTINO: I was in the rope climbing competition and then I was in the bouldering competition, which is climbing without a rope.

ROBERTS: What limb are you missing?

Mr. DeMARTINO: I am a below-the-knee amputee on my right side.

ROBERTS: So do you use a prosthetic?

Mr. DeMARTINO: I do. I work with a crew of guys here in Windsor, Colorado, and they and I designed a climbing foot that we then fabricated out of titanium and wrapped that in climbing rubber, and that's what I used to climb with.

ROBERTS: How did you lose your leg?

Mr. DeMARTINO: In a - I've been in a climbing accident. I was a climbing up in Rocky Mountain National Park five years ago. And just through a miscommunication, I got dropped a hundred feet, and landed standing and exploded both my feet. I broke my back. I broke my neck. I punctured a lung.

And so I ended up with losing my right leg below the knee and fusing my back for three levels in my lumbar and my neck is still messed up. And my left foot is now my bad foot, which is the one I kept. So the prosthetics works, you know, and all things considered, works great.

ROBERTS: I have to say, after an accident like that, you'd be forgiven for never mountain climbing ever again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DeMARTINO: And that is exactly what my parents say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DeMARTINO: They - I think they cringe every time they know I'm climbing so.

ROBERTS: As a climber, as someone who's taken on these challenges, is there a difference for you when you get to the top of that feeling of success now than there was before your accident?

Mr. DeMARTINO: I think now what is more fulfilling for me is the relationships that I've, kind of, made after the accident when we go climbing together. So for me, it's some of the people who have come beside me and helped me with climbing and taught me things about climbing.

I had climbed for 15 years before I got hurt - for 13 years before I got hurt. And to have to relearn climbing was always, you know, was a little bit daunting in the beginning.

ROBERTS: What sort of things did you have to relearn?

Mr. DeMARTINO: When you get amputated, you lose your center balance completely. So you know, you've lost this big piece of your body that you're so used to carrying around. So I had to learn, first, rewalking. And then when I started to climb again, the way my back is fused, I can't bend real well. So I, kind of, have to make adjustments for that. And the really weird - not, you know, when you climb, you put your feet on these really small edges and nubbins, and you can feel them with your feet usually. Well, I can't feel them at all with my right foot. And, because of my spinal cord injury from the back breakage, I can't feel my left foot so good either. I feel pieces of it.

So for me, I constantly have to be looking down at my feet to make sure I place them some place that they're going to stay because I don't know when they're going to spit off and when I'm going to fall.

ROBERTS: There's been some press lately about a sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, who's missing both legs. He's been trying to compete with able-bodied athletes in the upcoming Olympics. What do you think about that? What do you think about sort of cross-ability competition?

Mr. DEMARTINO: I feel like if he wants to compete and he feels he's strong enough to do it, then he should, you know, he should do it. And we all have advantages and disadvantages. He has advantages. The other runners have advantages. And same with climbing, I have, you know, advantage some places that they have advantages at other places. I think it all kind of evens out.

ROBERTS: Where in climbing does having prosthesis give you an advantage?

Mr. DEMARTINO: Well, particularly at crack climbing. When you - you're crack climbing a thin crack, you stick your toes into the crack and then kind of wrench down on to stand up, and it's painful.

So for me, I only have to deal with that on one foot. I can stick my prosthetic into the crack and obviously, I don't feel any pain with that. Now, it doesn't stick as good as a climbing foot or a shoe, a human foot would, but I think, you know, in that respect, my calves don't get tired on that side and I - my wife says it's completely aid climbing, which she says it's cheating. But I wouldn't say (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEMARTINO: I don't know if I would call it cheating. I think it's - you know, I'm trying to make do with what happened and see, you know, and make the best of it.

ROBERTS: Do you have kids?

Mr. DEMARTINO: I do. I have two kids - 6-year-old, William, and 8-year-old Maya.

ROBERTS: Do you think they remember a time when you weren't missing a leg?

Mr. DEMARTINO: You know, I'm not sure. I actually think about that quite often. I don't think my son does. I think he just always knows me as, you know, the one-legged daddy. But Maya was 4 or so when I fell. And I think she probably has some recollection of what I was like before. Although I think it's been five years. And I don't know that she really, you know, I don't know that it is anything that she would remember very well.

ROBERTS: So it's probably not unusual to them at all anymore?

Mr. DEMARTINO: No. And as a matter of fact, I've done - started to do work with some of the vets coming back from Iraq where we all go out and help them, go climbing for the day and get them kind of back on their feet. And she came down to one of the events we had down here in Boulder and she just is so used to seeing, you know, busted-up, missing-limbs people that to them it's like, wow, this is totally normal.

And they walk over and they'll ask how they lost their limbs. Or if they're in a wheelchair, they'll ask how they got in the wheelchair and they'll talk to them. And they'll ask them to take their prosthetics off and, you know, as a handicapped person, it's so refreshing to have a kid talk to you because they're so open and honest. And instead of just being uncomfortable as an adult could be sometimes, it's great to be able to see a kid just open up and talk and see what's going on.

ROBERTS: In addition to climbing with a prosthetic and competing in things like the Extremity Games, how sort of more profoundly has your life changed since that accident?

Mr. DEMARTINO: For me, it's just - it helped me to realign and pre-prioritize my life. I think that it's really easy to get caught up in the minutia of life and, you know, you get way down with everything. And for me, what it did was -my body was so busted up, I could only do a certain amount of things for a certain amount of time. And it forced me to kind of focus down, and focus on my family and focus on my faith and focus on my wife and just the things that I felt were important. And those were the things that kind of came to the forefront then.

ROBERTS: Craig DeMartino, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DEMARTINO: Oh, it's my pleasure. Absolutely. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Craig DeMartino won two gold medals at last week's Extremity Games.

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