by Nadia Gamieldien

A stroke above the rest

Shark victim achieves life's goal

SA Paralympian and medalist, Achmat Hassiem, shares his story of tragedy and triumph.
Achmat Hassiem

A participant and medal winner at the London Paralympics, Achmat Hassiem continues to break South African swimming records. 

As a child it was always his dream to represent South Africa within the sporting arena. This was a driving force that saw him entering into a variety of sporting genres.

He played everything from soccer, baseball to karate, and so many others. The ultimate goal was to represent his province and his country and he worked hard to reach that goal.

He chose to become a lifeguard and became a coach for the False Bay Surf Lifesaving Club. As a lifesaver, he could compete against other lifesavers and he could become a member of the South African Lifesaving team.  

During a routine training exercise in 2006, a four and a half metre great white shark swam into the training area in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

"I started kicking up such a racket in order to distract the shark from my brother. Once the shark turned to me, they were able to get my brother out of the water.

"When I turned to look at the fin, I saw the shark submerge itself and I knew I was in trouble. Next minute I saw this dark shadow swimming past my right side. It didn't attack me immediately, it swam past me and I was frozen on the spot, intimidated by the sheer size of it." recalls Hassiem.

He remembers feeling rather insignificant next to the gigantic creature.

"As he swam past me, he suddenly hit me with his tail and while I was recovering from the shock, it turned its head around and charged right at me. The minute I saw the splash of his body turning, I immediately started doing some kind of back-stroke. I didn't want to lose sight of it.

"Its a natural instinct to run away from something you perceive to be a threat but the faster I moved away, the faster it swam. Suddenly it lunged towards me and instinctively I shoved my left hand against its head to push it away from me.

"I saw the jaws open up and I nearly died at the sight of rows of razor sharp teeth. Each time it lunged at me, I would move his head away with my hand, so that I could be next to it. That was when I realised that the safest place for me was to be on its back.

"The first thing that came to mind was to swing my right leg forward to mount it, so that I was sitting on it. For some reason my right leg wouldn't move and when I looked down to see why, I saw my leg halfway in its mouth."

He fought viciously against the shark, hitting it first with his fists then kicking it against its side. The shark shook him a few times before he heard his bones break and he pulled himself free.

He used his last bit of strength to swim to the surface and wave his hands at the rubber duck that was searching for him.

"My brother pulled me out of the water and he just kept saying, 'don't worry, it will be ok, your'e ok'. The shark, clearly not impressed with the boat for interrupting its meal, came towards the rubber duck at quite a speed.

"The shark actually came right up against the rubber duck as he tried to grab hold of me again and the rubber duck's engine roared to life as we sped off."

He was airlifted to Constantiaberg hospital where he woke up in the ICU.

"I had lost half my leg to the shark. My brother was very emotional, as you can expect. He was grateful that I had saved his life and remorseful for being the reason I lost my leg."

"For a while I had to face the pain that came with the severity of my wound and that in itself was a battle. It was my brother who spoke some sense into my head one day. He said 'you know Achmat, you don’t have to give up on your dreams. Look at people like Natalie Du Toit and Oscar Pistorius, look at what they’re doing with their lives and you know they’re amputees too'.

"This really hit home and I realised how amazing they truly are. I knew Natalie du Toit before she lost her leg, as we were friends before then. I was studying at the ETA, an exercise teachers academy, when I ran into her. She encouraged me to get into the pool and see what happens." says Hassiem.

"It was hard work but I was determined to regain my strength. I trained with Natalie and I started attending the Sports Science Institute where I met Jill Taylor. She was in charge of the Macsteel Maestros programme. 

"She helped me to regain my focus and determination. I knew it was pointless to maintain a negative frame of mind. Eventually I had people come up to me, to tell me how amazing they thought I was. Even though I went through such a traumatic ordeal, they could not believe how positive I was," Hassiem said.

His story spread across the various media platforms and a gentlemen by the name of Jason Chin, had read it and wanted to meet him. Chin offered him a prosthetic leg in order for him to carry on achieving his goals.

"My positive attitude was to be my greatest weapon. Natalie helped me see the opportunities I had and it was up to me to make the most of it. I started training and pushing my body to the limits.

"One day I told my coach, Brian Button, that I wanted to try and qualify for the London 2012 Paralympics Games. Even though the time frame was tight, I kept pushing myself and trained harder each day. Before I knew it, I was breaking South African records in the pool," he concludes.

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