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When Jeff Schmidt completed the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii earlier this fall, crossing that finish line after nearly 18 hours on the course meant more than just the end of a race. It signified a positive highlight in a long physical and emotional battle the San Jose, Calif., resident has faced for over a decade.
"It was exciting, because it's a dream," Schmidt told NBCBayArea.com's Garvin Thomas.
Fifteen years ago, Schmidt was a star player on his Missouri high school soccer team — a young man dreaming of a college career and then going pro. During the first playoff game of his senior year, he had just finished saving a goal, when another player hit the side of his shin as his leg was in the air.
At that moment, Schmidt's life changed forever.
"I knew instantly my leg was [broken]," Schmidt said. His leg ended up being set and cast in the wrong way, which caused permanent damage. That led to 10 years of constant pain, failed surgeries and not being able to walk very far.
Schmidt faced depression and thoughts of suicide.
"We didn't know how to handle that kind of stress," his wife, Jenny, told NBCBayArea.com. "It ... caused medical issues, financial issues, emotional issues. It was tough. We went through a lot of really, really hard times."
Eventually in 2004, it was suggested that Schmidt should have his lower leg amputated. But the suggestion made him mad.
"I felt like I had fought so hard to keep that foot and ankle that to suggest getting rid of it, to me was like giving up." Schmidt said.
But three years after that suggestion, he went through with the amputation.
"If something in your life is causing you nothing but anguish, and you can get rid of it, what do you do? You get rid of it," he said.
Jeff Schmidt bicycles near his home in San Jose, Calif.
A second chance
At wife Jenny's suggestion, Schmidt, who now has a prosthetic leg, soon began training for triathlons like she was.
That brings the story back to 2012 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
On the day of the triathlon, Oct. 13, Schmidt felt good going in to the race, but challenges eventually arose: The run portion turned into a walk for him.
"I don't like to give up," Schmidt told NBCBayArea.com. "It's not something that is really in me to do."
Then, just four miles from the end, race officials told him he would not make the finish line before the course officially closed at midnight. But that didn't stop Schmidt.
"I had come too far not to finish," he said.
Nearly 18 hours after the race began, and half an hour past midnight, Schmidt was the last Ironman still going.
But he crossed the finish line, last, to cheers.
"We were in awe, really," said Tal Johnson, president and COO of Berkeley, Calif., race sponsor GU Energy Labs. "All of us. You know -- grown men, experienced athletes who were moved to the point of tears."
"Going through everything with my leg and the amputation, and to be able to come and finish at Kona ... to me it's one of the highlights of my life," Schmidt said.
NBC Bay Area's Garvin Thomas contributed to this story. The 2012 Ironman World Championship was telecast by NBC Sports on Oct. 27. Next year's Ironman in Kailua-Kona takes place on Oct. 12, 2013.
An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of GU Energy Labs.
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