In 2006, Achmat Hassiem had a too-close encounter with a shark off Sunrise Beach in Muizenberg, Cape Town.
Achmat was a lifeguard at the time, and was out in the surf training with his fellow lifeguards. One of them was his 17-year-old brother, Taariq.
"I saw the shark and at the same time I realised that it was going for my brother Taariq. I shouted to him and then started splashing around in the water to attract the shark to me."
The ploy worked and the shark turned its attention to Achmat. It grabbed his ankle, shook him and then pulled him under the water. At this point Achmat says he thought it was all over. But then he decided, “No, I am not going to die. It had my right leg so I started kicking at its head with my left leg.”
Kicked the shark
Achmat does not remember how many times he kicked the shark, but as he felt himself running out of breath, it released him. "As I came up I saw my brother's hand in the water and grabbed it. I looked back and saw the shark coming towards me for a second time.” But, thankfully, it was too late, the guys in the boat quickly pulled Achmat out the water and into the boat before the shark could reach him again.
He was taken to shore and then airlifted to Constantiaberg Medi-Clinic where he had emergency surgery to his leg. His foot had been bitten off by the shark.
"I don't know how to describe what it was like. It had my leg in its mouth, but I did not feel pain. It was just, I don't know, just this brute power, this massive brute force against me, against nothing."
“That was a year ago. While I realised that my dreams of being a competitive lifesaver and competing in competitions would not happen, I refused to let the incident make me give up my dreams.”
Before his encounter with Jaws, Achmat was a promising and successful provincial swimmer. However, he has not given up his dream. Instead of dreaming of being a champion lifesaver, he is now focused on being a swimming champion.
Who is his biggest role model? Natalie du Toit. “I knew Natalie when I was swimming competitively in 2000. We were both on the provincial team. However, I stopped swimming to pursue my lifesaving more seriously in 2003.” Since the accident, the Paralympic gold medallist has become his role model.
"She was the first person who came into my mind when I thought of a person who I could rely upon," he says of Natalie, who lost a leg at the age of 17 when a car hit her while she was riding her motorbike.
While the two train at different swimming clubs in the Cape, Natalie helped Achmat to learn to swim again. “Natalie taught me to dive; she explained to me what I would experience while swimming. She also has motivated me to push myself further, and taught me that nothing is unachievable.”
Prove you can do it
Says Natalie: "An accident really changes your life; it makes you want to live more, it makes you want to go out there and make a life for yourself, to prove you can do it. I think it is the same for Achmat. “
Achmat has also been inspired by JP Andrew, who lost a leg to a Great White shark at Surfer's Corner near Muizenberg two years ago. “He came to visit me. He’s a cool guy. We crack jokes together and people call us the two most unlucky people in the water," jokes Achmat.
Kidding aside, Achmat is very serious about competing in the international swimming arena. “My goal is to compete in the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. If I do get the opportunity I would like to bring home two gold medals.” His current goal is to get the South African selectors to notice him and then select him for Beijing.
“Sport and travel have always been my dream; I have never been outside of South Africa and I really want to travel and see the world. I would like to do so through sport.”
And Achmat is working very hard to achieve this goal. He trains every day, with double sessions on a Tuesday and Thursday, and on Sundays you will find him at Sunrise Beach with the lifeguards.
“I love being a lifesaver. It is not because of the incident that I am not doing it seriously anymore. It is really that I cannot afford the proper equipment. I would love to do iron man, etc, but I would need state-of-the-art equipment to assist me in paddling, for example. (Picture: Achmat(right) and his brother Taariq watching the surf at Sunrise beach)
The line of duty
“I am not afraid to go into the sea. There is some fear I suppose, but the line of duty, to save a person’s life, is greater. It makes me forget my fear. I still love lifesaving. It is a wonderful feeling to rescue someone and save their life. I enjoy being there for people.”
Achmat is current studying coaching science and his long term goal is to open a sporting academy and coach swimming as well as other sports for the community. He has already acquired a marketing qualification (IMM).
“Losing my foot has opened up some new opportunities for me. However, I am taking everything step-by-step. With Natalie, JP, Chris King (Western Province backstroke) my family and my friends supporting me, I believe I will get where I want to be.”