RIO DE JANEIRO • When South African Achmat Hassiem competes in the Paralympic swimming pool, he motivates himself by imagining a shark just behind – the shark that bit off half his leg a decade ago.
The fates of Hassiem and sharks have been inextricably wrapped up since that day off Cape Town when a great white shark caught him during a lifeguard training drill.
Then, the shark almost killed him. Today, the injury has propelled him into the Rio Paralympics. And next week, having completed his third and final Games, he will start a new career: globetrotting advocate for saving sharks from overfishing.
“My nickname is ‘shark boy'. Everyone calls me ‘sharky’ or ‘shark boy',” he told AFP on Tuesday after competing in the 100m freestyle, in which he did not make the final.
When Hassiem, 34, gets into the pale-blue pool, he thinks back to the moment when he took what was almost the last swim of his life.
“I actually use that fear when I race,” he said.
“I imagine a 4.7-metre great white shark guiding me down the lane and pushing me to try and get out on top.”
It was Aug 13, 2006, and then 24-year-old Hassiem and his younger brother Tariq were playing the role of victims in a lifeguard exercise off Muizenberg beach.
While waiting to be picked up by a rescue boat, Hassiem noticed a grey triangle approach his brother.
“I decided to look under the water," he said. When he resurfaced, he “screamed”. His brother was in the path of a huge shark.
Hassiem began to beat on the water to draw the threat away from Tariq. The plan worked - it saved his brother.
Hassiem, though, had to fight for his life.
“In just a matter of seconds I was face to face with a shark,” he said.
Struggling to keep away from the shark’s mouth, he even tried to mount on its back, only to find that “my right leg didn’t want to come forward”.
“That’s when I saw that half my leg was in the shark’s mouth already.”
The shark dragged Hassiem underwater for about 50 metres, and only when the shark finally severed his leg could he return to the surface and be rescued.
Hassiem recovered, but his right leg was gone and so, too, his dreams of moving from a semi-professional football career to full time.
It was multi-medal winning South African Paralympic and Olympic swimmer Natalie
“Now comes the crazy bit,” he laughed. Last year, he was named a Global Shark Guardian by the United Nations.
“What that entails is that I work to protect sharks all over the world, sort of like an advocate or ambassador for sharks,” >he said.
Far from harbouring hatred or anger at the animal that almost took his life, he feels a sense of duty to stop the overfishing that is destroying shark populations and threatening to disrupt the ocean food chain.
“The statistics are terrible. A hundred million sharks approximately are killed a year and, you know, more humans are killed by toasters than they are by sharks,” he added.