Athletes always need motivation to achieve their best performances. For some, that push comes in the form of their own indomitable inner competitiveness. For others, it may be a perceived slight by an opponent or the press.
None of those motivations can come close to what drives newly minted bronze medal-winning Paralympic swimmer Achmat Hassiem every time he steps into a pool. The South African star is motivated by pure fear and adrenaline, imagining that he is being chased by the shark that bit off his right leg.
As reported by the Associated Press, Hassiem's rather unique motivational tool comes as the result of direct experience, with Hassiem suffering the lost leg in a 2006 shark attack off the beach in Cape Town. At the time Hassiem was an able-bodied athlete who competed in a number of sports. He was also a lifeguard, and was participating in lifeguarding exercise with his brother, Taariq, when he saw a shark nearly 15-feet long. Unable to alert his brother, Hassiem yelled at other lifeguards nearby to pull his brother from the water while he distracted the shark.
That decision probably saved his brother's life, but it also permanently affected Hassiem's as well. The shark attacked the lifeguard as he slapped the water to gain its attention, then dragged him between 150 and 200 feet. Eventually the South African broke free by sacrificing his leg, forever giving up his appendage with, in his words, "one last enormous push and [I] heard a great snapping sound."
Hassiem walks you through the full terror of that attack in the video you see below.
While the loss of one of Hassiem's legs may have been a traumatic experience -- though nowhere near as horrendous as the loss of a sibling, as Hassiem is quick to counter -- the 30-year-old has made the most of it. An emerging Paralympic star, Hassiem reinvented himself as a one-legged swimmer, eventually becoming one of the best at his craft. After finishing in ninth place at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, he won the bronze in the 100-meter butterfly on Saturday in London.
And through it all, Hassiem has reflected on that terrifying moment in South Africa to frighten him into a mad dash for the wall during his tough races.
"My little secret is obviously that I just try and imagine I'm in the ocean and I've got a 4 ½-meter great white shark at my feet," Hassiem told the AP. "It's definitely good motivation to swim fast.
"That shark turned my life around for a reason, and I've got to make the best of all my opportunities now."
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