URBAN ATHLETES ACHMAT & TAARIQ HASSIEM
“People say sorry, but the rewards that have come are amazing. Losing a leg is nothing compared to losing a brother.”
Brothers Achmat and Taariq Hassiem were excited; life-saving exams were looming and a busy day of rehearsal lay ahead at Muizenberg Beach. It was 13 August 2006 and their lives were about to change for ever.
Down on the beach they met the others, Nick, Kim and Kiesha, and squabbled good-naturedly over who would be the patients and who the savers; and then who would be dropped where in the water.
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“Nick didn’t want to go any deeper than his knees. I jumped out and it was head height. My brother went deeper. I caught something out of the corner of my eye, a black shadow in the water. I thought it was a seal or a dolphin and then this fin broke the water,” said Achmat.
“The shark was heading towards my brother Taariq. I screamed for the rubber duck to get out to him. They didn’t understand what I was shouting about – I was screaming, ‘Get Taariq, get Taariq, he’s in danger’. Then I started splashing, trying to distract the shark.
“I got in the boat. It turned and went straight for my brother,” said Taariq.
“But the shark didn’t attack. It bumped me and its body rolled along mine, then its tailed whacked me. I was rocking, trying to keep my feet. I lost sight of the shark but I could see my brother further out. He was screaming something at me. Then I saw it coming. Its mouth was open,” said Achmat.
“All I thought was to try and get away from its mouth, so I put my hand out and tried to push myself on top of it. My hand was on the shark’s head and I tried to get my right leg over it. I couldn’t move my leg and then I saw half of it was in the shark’s mouth. It started violently shaking me; it was terrifying. I could feel my leg being torn apart but there was no pain. I was in absolute shock… I was being attacked by a great white.”
“I was still trying to get out of the shark’s mouth. I was getting short of breath and I remember thinking why don’t I just let myself drown – that would be better than what the shark would do to me.”
“Then I decided, no, fight. I hit the shark with my fists. A shark’s body is coarse and it was like hitting sandpaper, a tank wrapped in sandpaper. Soon I had no skin on my knuckles but I had one good leg left and I was trying to kick the shark. Then it shook me again, twice, and so hard that on the second one there was this cracking sound, even under the water – my leg broke off.”
“I swam towards the surface, I stuck my hand out of the water and that’s when I saw my brother in the rubber duck. He grabbed me, saying ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you’. I was hauled into the boat as the shark came back. It dwarfed the boat. It hit the underneath of the boat. My brother jumped on me to hold me. He closed my eyes so I couldn’t see what had happened to my leg. Later he told me that there were perfectly cut triangles of flesh with bits of broken shin bones hanging out. But still I felt no pain.”
Later that day, Achmat was operated on, and up until the very moment the anesthetic took hold, he still had no real idea what he had been through. He describes how there were moments when he felt as though he was looking down on himself playing a part in a movie. Reality arrived the following day.
He awoke in intensive care. “The first thing I saw was my brother crying. That hit me hard. He saw I was awake and said, ‘Thank you’. I said, ‘What for?’ ‘Saving my life,’ he said.
“Then he said: ‘You know what happened?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Look under the blanket,’ he said. I was scared to look. I looked and saw my leg was gone – that was the first moment I really knew what had happened. I’d always played sport, it was all I wanted to do. I went into this great depression.”
“It was on my third day in hospital that the pain really kicked in. You feel like your leg is still there – I felt like I had cramps in my right foot, but of course I didn’t have a right foot. It’s the worst pain I ever went through.
Sport had been his life before the attack and it was to be sport, and the prospect of still one day being able to wear his country’s colours, that was to help bring him back to life. “One day Natalie du Toit came to visit. She suggested I got into paralympic swimming.” Achmat was part of the 2008 SA Paralympic team in Beijing which finished sixth, just two years after he lay in intensive care in Cape Town. He then went on to participate in the 2012 Paralympics in London. He specialised in butterfly and freestyle and is now in the world’s top 10.
“The first time I got back in the water was really difficult,” Achmat recalls. “The first time I went underwater the fear kicked in. It took a couple of weeks to get brave enough to do it properly.”
There was one place that he still had to go. “Getting back into the ocean,” he says. “That was the worst thing ever. I wanted to do the Robben Island swim and so went down with some open-water swimmers to start training. They said they would look after me. It was not long before I saw a shadow in the water – it was a rock but it gave me such a fright. I sat on the shore and said, ‘I can’t do this’.”
He ended up watching the race and decided that this was another battle he would not lose, and a year later he swam to Robben Island, with Taariq sitting in the boat that accompanied him, keeping an eye on the surrounding sea and urging his elder brother on.
“There are still nights where I sit down and thank God I survived the attack and have had all these experiences,” sums up Achmat. “People say sorry, but the rewards that have come are amazing. Losing a leg is nothing compared to losing a brother.”
Keep Going Achmat & Taariq!