By Luke Norman
South African Paralympic swimmer Achmat Hassiem is so grateful to the Great White shark that bit half of his right leg off that he is preparing to devote the rest of his life to protecting her and her kind.
‘I was recently made a global marine guardian by the UN. My forte is sharks – who better to protect them than me?’ said Hassiem, who will pursue his conservation role full-time when he retires from competition after the conclusion of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
The 34-year-old was taking part in a lifeguard training exercise off Muizenberg beach, near Cape Town, South Africa, in August 2006 when a five-metre Great White appeared. After seeing it circle his younger brother, Hassiem drummed on the water’s surface in a desperate bid to distract the predator. He lost his leg below the knee as a result, an injury that transformed his life.
‘The shark has given me so many opportunities, opportunities to represent my country, to change the world. It took me from being a little kid with dreams to actually being a little kid who has achieved all those dreams,’ Hassiem said.
‘I have become a shark advocate because it is my way of thanking her for giving me everything I have achieved today and it is my way of thinking I am a hero to the world, hence the nickname “Shark Boy”.’
Hassiem, who won bronze in the 100m butterfly S10 at the London 2012 Games, has even named his attacker.
‘She is called Scarlet. She is extremely massive now,’ said Hassiem, who sees the shark every summer when she returns to the waters in which he was injured.
There is a touch of Hollywood in the story arc of the South African, who is going for gold in the S10 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly, and it has not been missed by movie makers.
‘Sony got me involved (in The Shallows, a 2016 horror film about a swimmer and a vengeful shark) to speak about the movie. To see that shark in motion, it is quite realistic. It brought back memories,’ he said.
And Hassiem will invoke his memories of that fateful day to motivate himself in the pool in Rio, as he does every time he competes.
‘I think about that moment when the shark is coming, that knock on your leg, when your senses switch on, everything activates and I see this massive fin come out of the water,’ he said.
‘Believe me, when I am in the water I am flying.’
Norman is editor of Olympic News Services