What was the plan before you got attacked by a shark?
The shark attack changed my life tremendously. I live in a very small place called Strandfontein Village in Cape Town, in False Bay area. It is a very quiet community. It is me, my mom, my dad and my bro. We are a very close-knit family. My plan was to one day get a job, the 9-5.
After the shark attack, everything flipped on its head. I am now a South African African Paralympic medalist. I just recently got made a Global Marine Guardian, which is flipping awesome.
Sorry to cut you in, as awesome as that sounds, I have no clue what it is?
We go around the world trying to create marine sanctuaries. We repair reefs. My main focus is sharks, being a shark attack survivor. Who better to speak out for sharks?
Your first swim after the attack was the Freedom Swim, how did you prepare your mind to get back into the water?
The Freedom swim, to be honest, was not my first swim.
I am going, to be honest with you, I like to be open and honest with people. I did not do the Freedom Swim that year. I pulled out a day before. I entered thinking that I am a swimmer and that I could do it. I pulled out because of fear. I was scared, I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t want to be attacked by a shark again…being in salt water again…swimming over rocks, you see things at the bottom.
I was disappointed with myself, that I didn’t do the swim that year. I made my peace, I told myself I had a year to train for the next one. The guys from the Freedom Swim supported me all the way. Some really amazing guys invited me to train with them, they made sure that I swam in the middle and that I was safe all of the time. That comfort that those friends and my family gave me eventually gave me the confidence to do the Freedom Swim the following year. I was aiming to win the race, I was going against some really big names, but you know what, I finished the race. Which was the most important thing, I made the top twenty. My greatest reward was when I finished the race, a little girl in a wheelchair gave me my medal. That was really special to me. She said, “Thank you for doing that race for us”. That touched me.
So the man who was attacked by a shark is now protecting sharks?
Going back, we were talking about how your life planned changed dramatically…
On August the thirteenth 2008 in Muizenberg my life changed. It was a Sunday, we were just doing routine lifeguard training exercises. It was multiple patient rescues. You have three people in the water. A rubber duck with a driver and a crewman on the beach, their job is to rescue the three people in the water. I was in the water with my brother and a friend. My brother was the deepest person in the water. As the whistle went off for the ‘rescue’ to begin, something caught the corner of my eye coming from my right side. I saw this massive fin moving towards my brother. I drummed on top of the water to draw the shark’s attention away from him. Next thing I know I am face to face with a 4.7 m great white shark. The first thing that came to my mind was crazy survival instincts, I told myself to just get away from the jaws. The shark lunged forward, I took my left hand and put it on the shark’s nose, actually moving the entire head passed me. Or do I say moving my body out of the way of its head. I pushed my hip into the side of the sharks head. I pulled my right leg forward and it didn’t want to come forward, that is when I realized that half of my leg was already in the shark’s mouth. At that point the shark shook me on top of the water, I remember shouting and screaming in terror. I reached out for my brother and asked him not to let me die. I then got pulled under the water and dragged for about 70 meters towards Seal Island. When I was under the water, I thought that was it, my life would end. I was thinking that I was going to drown. As humans it is our job to never give up in life, we cant. When you are backed up in a corner, the last thing you are going to do is go down without a fight. It is in our nature. So I fought. I hit the shark on the side of its head as much as I could. You know they say to punch it on the nose, I did give that a bash. Unfortunately it didn’t work.
Really I hear that is meant to work, their noses are sensitive?
No, well it didn’t work for me. So I took my left leg and started kicking the shark on the side of its head. The shark shook me again and that is when my leg broke into two. I swam for the surface. I saw the underside of the rubber duck and this person hanging over the side looking at me. He reached down and I reached up. I call it the hand of God, It was my brother. He said, “Don’t worry, I got you”. My brother was lying on top of me closing my eyes. I remember wanting to see and he wouldn’t let me, he told me I had a little cut on my foot and that I shouldn’t worry. When I woke up in the hospital I found out my leg was bitten off.
When you were in the water during the attack, did you make your peace with the possibility of your death? Does one do that?
Death was there. I told death that I wasn’t ready, to go back to wherever it came from, give me another chance. I don’t think we should be afraid of death but we should make the best of the time we have.
What was your first thought when you realized you had lost your leg?
I grew up in a family of sportsmen. My mother played tennis. My father did athletics. Many of my aunts played in the South African netball team. Sport was in our family. That was the legacy I wanted to carry on. As a child I always wanted to represent my country. More than anything else I wanted to wear green and gold. I had wanted to do lifesaving competitively, the same time I was playing semi-professional soccer. I was hoping to eventually go to trials and play professionally. When I found out that my leg was bitten off in the hospital, I just kept asking myself how I was going to play soccer again. How was I going to be a goalkeeper with one leg? These dreams just kind of flew away from my mind. I didn’t think it was possible to ever wear green and gold. At the time I was one of South Africa’s top beach sprinting champions in life saving. Natalie du Toit who is a multiple medalist, Paralympics champion came to visit me. We have been friends for years, before we both even lost our legs. She is the one who said to me “You are a lifeguard, you have a swimming background, why don’t you turn that into something”. Next thing I knew I was in the pool, breaking South African records in butterfly, setting new all Africa records and eventually on my way to targeting world championships. Everyone asks if the highlight for me was getting my medal at the Paralympic games. It was amazing but what was really a big moment for me was when I opened up my first box with my first uniform in it. I will never forget that day, it was in Johannesburg, I had made the South Africa team to go to the Beijing games in 2008. We each got given this box. I remember sitting by myself in this park with my box. When I opened it, I just saw the South African logo with the flag and the Paralympic symbol and I just burst into tears. My life never ended with the shark attack. I got a medal in London 2016, I mean 2012.
Are you Predicting the future?
I am going to say that I am going to come home with a medal from Rio 2016, it is going to be a gold.
Many doors have opened. I mean I am a Global Marine Guardian, how awesome is that?
Does the job come with a cape and a cool emblem? Sorry I watch too many Marvel movies.
It is really awesome and something new in my career, new opportunities are coming. It is all pretty exciting, I have also been getting movie offers.
Amazing, who is going to play you?
That is a secret, for now, I will tell you off the record.
Sorry I moved ahead.
No no, I am just jumping around. You mentioned in an interview that you fell into a depression after the attack, which was to be expected. How would you advise someone who has a person close to them experience a trauma of some kind? There is always confusion surrounding delicate situations. Often those close do not know how to help that person. What would you advise?
The best advise that I can give is that if someone is faced with something traumatic, they need the support of their friends and family. Like I said, my family is very close-knit, after the attack they stayed by my side, day and night. It is very reassuring to hear that you are going to be okay. Try to keep them out of a dark spot. They must understand that there is a mourning period. Also understand that that person needs you, you need to be there for them. They always say that the best way to cure something sad is to add a bit of happiness. Try to help them turn a negative into a positive, however, you can. Personally, it is how I do things, I take something negative and just try and be positive about it. I believe in seeing the positive things in life.
I feel the worst thing you can tell someone straight after a trauma is that everything happens for a reason.
I do tend to believe that certain things happen for a reason. I believe I was in the right place at the wrong time. Or in the wrong place at the right time. But really things could have been different, I could have lost my brother.
I know you have already mentioned Natalie’s visit when you were in the hospital, anything to add?
It was just kind of weird that when I heard she had a motorcycle accident, I was there. Years later, I lose a leg and there she is doing the same thing for me. Natalie has always been a take the bull by the horns kind of person, she told me what I would have to do if I wanted to wear green and gold. I remember sitting with her at varsity one morning, we both been amputees now. She was telling me the guys that I was going to go up against and that my class was very tough. If I wanted it I can have it, I just needed to push through. She told me it was going to be a tough journey but I had to go for it. That stuck with me more than anything else. Well, that and she told me that when I would get into the pool for the first time I was going to swim sideways because of my disability. There I was so used to kicking with two legs and now I was actually going sideways across the pool.
You are a voice for that little girl who gave you your medal at the Freedom swim, and for so many others.
I try and show people that although we have disabilities we are no different. I like to wear shorts, I like to show my leg, I want people to see and be comfortable with what is different to them. I tell kids that different is special, it stands out in a crowd.
Is there a problem in this country with negative perceptions of disabled people?
There is just a lack of awareness.
You are a motivational speaker?
I would like to think I am a motivational speaker with a difference. I want my talks to inspire people to live. To make the best of their lives. It is a kick in the butt to go out there and do and live. I believe that I can change the world, one person at a time. If I can help turn the world into a better place, then that is what I am going to do. I believe that is the reason that I got put on this earth.