Shark Boy

Sharks can’t speak for themselves. Who better to speak out for them than a shark attack victim?

Ten years ago, South African Achmat Hassiem was participating in a lifesaving exercise off Muizenberg beach in Cape Town together with his brother. At some point he noticed a triangular object moving towards his brother who was playing the role of an unconscious person in the exercise, face down in the water. The triangular object turned out to be the dorsal fin of a 4,7m long great white shark. Immediately, Hassiem tried to distract the shark’s attention away from his unsuspecting brother by splashing and drumming desperately on the water. Indeed the fin turned away from his brother…and was now coming straight at Hassiem himself. The shark dived and then attacked, severing Hassiem’s right leg below the knee. Ultimately the lifeguards and his brother managed to pull him out of the water.

Two years later he competed in his first Paralympics in Beijing, having taken up competitive swimming soon after leaving hospital, not least due to the support of fellow South African Natalie du Toit, one of the few athletes to have competed in both the Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. During the next Games in London in 2012, Hassiem won a bronze medal in the men’s 100m butterfly S10, and that’s where he got his nickname. The crowd, very much aware of his story, cheered him on, constantly calling ‘Shark Boy! Shark Boy!’. Hassiem liked it, and the nickname stuck.

But his connection to the sharks extends far beyond that day in 2006, a day which changed his life in more than one way. Achmat Hassiem, who is now working as a motivational speaker, became a conservationist and active campaigner for the protection of the ‘Great Whites’ and other shark species, so often falsely stigmatized as cruel man-eating monsters (thanks, Mr. Spielberg!) and (illegally) hunted for their fins, jaws, teeth or simply out of ‘revenge’. Working for the ‘Save Our Seas’-initiative which funds research and other projects to protect marine life, he was named a ‘Global Shark Guardian’ by the UN Save our Sharks Coalition.

Sharks are apex predators, they keep the marine food web in balance. But they are declining, killed for things like a bowl of soup. When I saw how they take a shark, cut off its fins when it is still alive and then throw it back where it dies slowly, it is inhumane. Sharks are going to be wiped out and soon we will only see them in museums.

And he has even named the shark that attacked him, ten years ago, who as he puts it gave him so much more for his life than she took away. Her name is ‘Scarlet’, she’s still alive and well, and he actually still sees her quite regularly when she returns to False Bay in the summer. Asked about his motivation in the pool, Hassiem stated that he usually thinks of ‘Scarlet’…

It’s my little way to get my adrenalin pumping. When I get behind the blocks, I imagine I’m in the ocean, and this massive great white is in the water, and she’s saying ‘Hey Achmat, I’m right behind you. I’m coming for you…’

Tonight, Achmat Hassiem will compete in his second Paralympic final, starting in the 100m butterfly S10, in which he won bronze four years ago. And, for sure, he will be thinking of ‘Scarlet’ again…

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