Swim­mer’s mo­ti­va­tion comes from night­mare mem­o­ries

The Myanmar Times - - Sport -

WHEN South African swim­mer Ach­mat Hassiem com­petes in the Paralympic 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 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: globe-trot­ting ad­vo­cate for sav­ing sharks from over­fish­ing.

“My nick­name is ‘shark boy.’ Every­one calls me ‘sharky’ or ‘shark boy’,” he told AFP on Septem­ber 13 af­ter com­pet­ing in the 100m freestyle.

“My brother ex­plains to me that it sounds like a su­per­hero ti­tle and I like to think about it like that – be­ing a su­per­hero.”

When Hassiem, 34, re­moves his pros­the­sis, which is em­bla­zoned with the South African colours, and 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 (15.4-foot) great white shark guid­ing me down the lane and push­ing me to try and get out on top.”

It was Au­gust 13, 2006, and then-24year-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 thought it was a dol­phin, ei­ther a dol­phin or one of those seals,” he said. “I de­cided to look un­der the wa­ter.”

When he resur­faced, he “screamed”. His brother was in the path of a huge shark.

Fear­ing the boat would not ar­rive in time, Hassiem be­gan to beat on the wa­ter to draw the threat away from Tariq. The plan worked: It saved his brother.

Hassiem, though, was go­ing to have to fight for his life.

“In just a mat­ter of sec­onds I was faceto-face with a shark,” he said. Strug­gling to keep away from the 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, which, as he noted, look­ing into the Rio arena, “is the same length as that Olympic pool”.

Only when the shark fi­nally sev­ered his leg could he re­turn to the sur­face, half drowned, and be pulled out.

Hassiem re­cov­ered, but his right leg was gone and so, too, his dreams of mov­ing from a semi-pro­fes­sional foot­ball ca­reer to full­time.

It was multi-medal-win­ning South African Paralympic and Olympic swim­mer Natalie Du Toit who en­cour­aged him to try the pool. He never looked back.

“I took to the pool like a shark to the ocean,” he joked.

Hassiem com­peted in the Bei­jing 2008 Par­a­lympics, won bronze in London 2012, and Rio will be his last. “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,” the tall, ami­able ath­lete 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 said. –

Pho­tos: AFP

South Africa’s Ach­mat Hassiem com­petes dur­ing a heat of men’s 100 m freestyle of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro on Septem­ber 13.

Hassiem’s pros­thetic leg is decked out in South African colours.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Myanmar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.