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Shark attack survivor graduates from UCT and dreams of swimming for SA

05 April 2019 - 15:36 By DAVE CHAMBERS
Shark attack survivor Caleb Swanepoel is due to graduate from the University of Cape Town on April 16.
Shark attack survivor Caleb Swanepoel is due to graduate from the University of Cape Town on April 16.
Image: University of Cape Town

Next stop the Paralympics for shark attack survivor Caleb Swanepoel, who is due to graduate from the University of Cape Town on April 16.

The dance and performance student made a remarkable recovery after losing his right leg to a shark when he was in his first year at UCT.

He returned to the water two months later and has since excelled at surfing and swimming. He won his division in the International Surfing Association Adaptive Surfing Championships and is eyeing the world championships in California.

As a swimmer, he qualified for Western Province and has competed in the last three national championships. In 2018 he won medals in the long-course and short-course championships, and hopes to join the SA swimming team at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Swanepoel, who is also a motivational speaker and has aspirations to act in productions of Shakespeare’s plays in the UK, said after the 2015 shark attack in Buffels Bay, near Knysna, "I thought I wouldn’t go back to varsity for a while."

He added: "I thought I’d have six months off to figure things out, do a course or two and just relax. Get into lazy mode."

But staff at UCT’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, told him: "We’re going to do everything we can to accommodate you, but please, come back."

Senior lecturer Clare Stopford said Swanepoel had been tenacious. "His courage paved the way for other differently abled students in the drama department to join with confidence, while his determination has offered many teachers the opportunity to extend and adapt their skills to teaching differently bodied students," she said.

The student, then 20, from the Karoo town of Prince Albert, was attacked by a shark while surfing with his brothers, Joshua and Alexander.

When he saw the 3m great white, he screamed a warning to his brothers and they struck out for shore. As he was swimming, he sensed the shark was onto him. It hit with violent force, shaking him before pulling him under.

"I came up out of the water and, I didn’t know at what point, but the shark had taken my leg off and I was floundering," said Swanepoel.

Younger brother Alexander was closest to him. "When he got to me I couldn’t swim properly – I was so tired – so he grabbed the back of my wetsuit and started pulling me back to the beach," said Swanepoel.

He had lost a lot of blood. Surfers on the beach tied a belt around his stump, tourniquet style. Someone called the National Sea Rescue Institute, which later gave Alexander an award for bravery.

Swanepoel said: "After the attack, I had different moves and had to adapt. It would be good for others to see that you aren’t limited by your body. You can do anything if you put your mind to it."

A three-minute video of his movement exam at UCT just four months after the attack has been an inspiration to thousands.

Showing enviable control, physicality and grace, he wowed examiners as he jumped, stretched and rolled. A perfect headstand had the audience gasping then applauding the ballet-infused contemporary routine.

Swanepoel shared the routine with the message: "In order to succeed, you must first believe that you can!"

He said at the time: "It was such a benchmark in my recovery to see progress and how I’ve developed. The encouragement came from lecturers, family and friends."