'I am faster with one leg'
ACHMAT Hassiem, who is aiming for a podium finish at the London Paralympics, is swimming faster now than when he had two legs.
Hassiem, one of 62 athletes named in Team South Africa for the Paralympics yesterday, is ranked third in the world in the 100m butterfly. With a time within a second of the world record, he's hopeful he can win a medal.
"My times are much faster than when I had two legs," said Hassiem, who lost his right leg below the knee in a shark attack at Muizenberg in August 2006.
While doing a life-saving drill, he spotted a 4.7m great white shark heading for his brother. He splashed around to create a distraction and it worked - the shark came at him and took him by the leg.
"It dragged me underwater for 50m to 70m. I couldn't hold my breath any more and I decided not to go down without a fight."
He punched the shark, but quit after scraping all the skin off his hands. "It was like hitting a sandpaper-covered tank."
Then he kicked at it with his left leg.
"I felt a ripping, then there was a smack sound and I broke free."
His brother arrived in a rubber duck in the nick of time, pulling him aboard just before the shark returned to attack him again, hitting the boat moments after he was hauled out of the water.
Hassiem has returned to the ocean since, completing two Robben Island swims in Cape Town's colder waters, but he has not returned to False Bay.
He treats his disability with humour - the jaws of a shark have been drawn on his prosthetic leg.
"It's a fashion statement [at the Paralympics]. Who has the best leg, the best arm, the best wheelchair? It's fun, just a bit of humour."
Samkelo Radebe, a member of the 4x100m relay team alongside Oscar Pistorius, also laughs at his own misfortune. As a nine-year-old he played with an electrical cable and 11000 volts surged through him.
He was left with no arms below the elbows.
"I wanted to see if I could be like Superman and carry a load. I did ... hey, so I lost a couple of hands."
Radebe played soccer after the accident. "I wanted to be a goalkeeper ... and we sucked. Of course I always blamed my defenders. I left the team and they improved. I wanted to go back, but they didn't want me."
Radebe, Pistorius, Zivan Smith and Arnu Fourie set the relay world record in Germiston early this year.
Swimmer Shireen Sapiro, who won 100m backstroke gold in Beijing, is also hoping to shine in London.
"I'm hoping to reclaim my title," she said, adding she was also competing in the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly.
Since readmission in 1992, South African paralympians have won 139 medals, 63 of them gold.
By comparison, the country's Olympians have won 19 medals, four of them gold.