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Women's Expo: Keynote speaker recounts 'Survivor' experience

Chad Crittenden is quick to agree that his ordeal during the 2004 Survivor Vanuatu season "was awful," but it was also an unforgettable experience.

Crittenden, Bemidji Pioneer Women's Expo's keynote speaker today, didn't win the $1 million prize because he was the ninth person to be voted off the island during a tribal merger. But he did achieve another goal - demonstrating that amputees can compete on any level.

In 2002 when he was 33 and a teacher in Oakland, Calif., he discovered a lump in his foot. In a telephone interview from his home in Livermore, Calif., he said the lump didn't really hurt, but it was irritating when he put on his cleats to play soccer. So, he insisted on surgery, thinking the lump was probably a cyst or something minor.

That was a Friday.

"I got a phone call on Monday," he said.

The news was very bad: a rare deadly cancer - synovial sarcoma.

"Within hours I had to process all this information," he said. "I Googled and researched. I was not taking it lightly."

The result was amputation of his right leg just below the knee. He said he worked on his recovery in small stages and became well enough and comfortable enough with his prosthesis to compete in a triathlon nine months after the amputation. And about one year after the surgery, he sent an audition tape to CBS to apply for a spot on Survivor.

Although he didn't win the money, he took away from the 27 grueling days on the island a chance to break the preconceptions about an amputee's physical abilities. Now, he travels as an inspirational speaker and works with Challenges Athletes Foundation, Sarcoma Alliance and Adaptive Action Sports.

For Survivor Vanuatu, Crittenden and the other contestants were dropped onto the island and divided into two tribes, one male and one female. The tribes had to hike many miles over rugged terrain and build camps from scratch. To conceal the fact that he was an amputee, Crittenden wore long, tear-away pants.

Crittenden has been cancer-free for more than seven years. He and his wife, Dyann, have two children, Clara, 9, and Trevor, 6. He is a full-time at-home father and motivational speaker. He said he owns a DVD of Survivor Vanuatu, but he hasn't watched the 14 or so hours worth of his island experience. Maybe, he said, he will watch it someday with his children.

Crittenden will speak at the Women's Expo at 1 p.m. on the Minnesota Public Radio Stage and conduct a seminar at that venue following his presentation.