08 October 2012

Interview with Paul de Gelder - shark attack survivor.

Last month, I met a man that I call Superman. Paul de Gelder was the keynote speaker at the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars ball. He talked about how he went from teenage rouseabout to drug user and strip club worker to working in the military - first as a soldier in the Army then as a Navy Clearance Diver. In February 2009, Paul's life changed again while conducting an anti-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harboour. A shark attacked him so severely he lost his right forearm and leg. He told us his story with authenticity, humour and larrikinism, and this is what impressed me so much. 

In his book, No Time for Fear, Paul tells of the moment the shark attacked him:

"I felt an almighty whack on the leg. I didn't think too much of it at first. It didn't hurt.
Half a second later I turned over, looked down to check my leg and saw the huge grey head of a bull shark, one of nature's most aggressive man-eaters. What's more, I could see the upper row of its teeth across my leg.

Its lip was pulled back and its mouth looked enormous.

We must have stared at each other for about three seconds but as soon as I recovered from the shock, I started fighting for my life.

I couldn't seem to move my arm. It was pinned down by my side. I hadn't realised my hand was also in its mouth. I tried to stab it in the eyeball with my other hand. I tried to push its nose, but my hand just slid off, like pushing a slippery concrete wall.

I pulled back my left arm and punched the shark as hard as I could on the nose.

It started shaking me like a dog would a rag doll. The shark pulled me down under the water, continuing to shake me.

The second time I went under I could only see bubbles in front of my face.

I no longer felt any pain. I couldn't do anything. I was totally helpless. Everything was quiet. There was just a deep silence." (Excerpt published in the Daily Telegraph)

After the shark attack, Paul spent two months in hospital, and upon returning home, he felt like his life was over. He was in severe physical and emotional pain. He wasn't sure how he'd continue to live the energetic life he had done before. He hated what he'd become - his body had lost two limbs. But then he made the decision to work very hard to rehabilitate himself. He vowed to work twice as hard as able bodied people, and train three times as hard, so he could lead the best life he could. I remember him saying during his speech "I was told I could go back to work three half days a week. So I went back five full days". He also said that a day after his leg was amputated, he was doing one armed chin ups with the overhead bar on his bed - this did not impress his doctor! 

He showed us images and a video of the shark attack, his rehabilitation, and his work as a motivational speaker and shark conservationist. Some of the video is extremely graphic - showing the damage the shark did to his leg. He said that at most events he speaks at, audience members (usually blokey men) pass out watching this video. 

Paul has an amazing spirit - so much determination and humour. He was so lovely when I met him, posing for photos and talking to me about my work. We are Facebook friends now. I particularly love this motto (from his book):

"Life is here to be lived. And with the right attitude and willingness to deal with the hurdles, it can be bloody awesome."

He has recently left the Navy to pursue writing, speaking and education full time. He is also a passionate environmental conservationalist, highlighting the importance of protecting sharks.
(Source: Paul de Gelder)

He did this interview for me to share with you. 

Carly: Tell me what made you go from drugs and strip clubs to an important position in the Navy?

Paul: "By the time I hit 23 years old, I realised that my life was going around in a vicious circle and I wasn't actually accomplishing anything.I knew there was so much out in the world to see and do but i just had no way of being a part of it, or any idea how to get out of my rut.

On advice from my mum I talked to my younger brothers who were in the Royal Australian Artillery Corps and finally decided to become an Infantry soldier in the Army.

After 5 years I became a bit bored with my job and went looking for a more exciting role in the military, which was when i stumbled across the Navy Clearance Divers."

What sort of things do you do in your job? Where have you been deployed to? 

P: "As an Airborne Infantry Soldier I was trained in frontline combat and peacekeeping. I'd travelled all over Australia,  Noumea and served 6 months in East Timor. As a Navy Clearance diver I've been trained to conduct Clandestine underwater missions, Mine Counter Measures, Underwater battle damage repair and Explosive ordnance disposal on land and underwater."

Tell me about the shark attack? How severe was it? What injuries did you come away with?

"The shark attack was very severe and i only survived because of the first aid of my fellow divers, great doctors and paramedics and my overall fitness.

The shark took my whole hamstring including 22cm's of my sciatic nerve, missing my femoral artery by mm's, it also tore of my right hand."

You spoke about the pain you endured after the shark attack. What was the point when you decided you would fight this and become superman? 

"Hahaha Superman's a bit of a stretch but I had plenty of time to think while laying in a hospital bed for 9 weeks. I realised the crappy position I was in but my pride wouldnt let me give in.

I'd trained so hard and so long to reach this position in my life and I'd be damned if i was going to let a 10 second incident take it all away from me.

There was 2 choices, Ii could wallow in misery and be useless like I once was or I could do just like I'd been trained in the military and get on with the job and laugh at the challenge."

You mentioned three words:
How has your life changed since the attack?

"My whole life is different now. Some changes were instantaneous, not having two legs for instance and others of a more progressive nature such as my change of career.

As a whole though, life is slower and somewhat harder but thats fine. Just because my life is different doesn't make it worse. I was always chasing adventure and challenges and by god did I get one.

So I treat it as it is, challenges to overcome and adventures to be had."

Tell me about the work you do now - education, motivational speaking and writing?

"It's a lot safer than my last 2 jobs, i can say that and not as adrenaline fueled. It does however grant me personal satisfaction and a sense of triumph in other ways.
I used to be petrified of public speaking and now i'll regularly address audiences in the hundreds. Not only that but my story and life lessons seem to benefit others immensely. This is the greatest reward for my job. The feeling of helping others overcome their challenges in life. Everyone has problems in life, mine are no bigger or better than any one else's, they're just different but there are tools and mindsets that we can use to overcome any problem, big or small. So i feel blessed to be able to share those things."

Tell me about the mateship of the Navy. How have they supported you? 

"Never underestimate the value of good support. Before I could even walk the Chief of Navy announced that I'd always have a job if I wanted one. My mates from the military and my mates that I'd kept since school were by my bedside in an instant, keeping me occupied and laughing. Bonds of friendship are built strongest under hardship and toiling side by side. My friends are more like family to me, always have been."

You said you choose and practice happiness. Why have you made that choice?

"I practice positivity and happiness because whats the other option, negativity and sadness. That's no way to live. I banned negativity from my life because it's useless. I surround myself in strong minded, positive people which breeds and promotes the same in you."

Why are you passionate about protecting sharks when you were eaten alive by one? 

"I'm passionate about protecting all of our environment and eco systems but because of my close link to sharks these days I guess it's easier for me to get a point across. If people can see that I understand the important role they play in our world after what happened and strive to protect them then perhaps they'll listen a little closer and act a little wiser."

How important is humour in your story? I've found humour can lighten the mood when I talk about my condition, is it the same for you? 

"Honestly, there is nothing i love more than a good laugh, it just eases the spirit even in the darkest of times. There were times when I was a soldier where I'd been walking through the bush for weeks only to be dirty, smelly and hungry. Blisters all over my feet from walking and all over my hands from digging fighting pits. My shoulders ached from carrying a 40kg pack and I was exhausted from lack of sleep but no matter how we felt, we could always count on maintaining a sense of humour about it all to keep us going, even if it was laughing at the ridiculous situation we were in."

Tell me what helping others does for you.

"Helping others makes me feel like I have purpose, wether it's one on one or motivating a crowd, peace keeping in East Timor or teaching some one about good nutrition. It provides a sense of happiness and peace that can only be acheived by doing something solely for the benefit of another person." 

(See the subtle photobomb by newsreader Angela Bishop above!)

For more information, see http://pauldegelder.com.


  1. Great interview Carly! I had heard of his story, and I think it's absolutely amazing how he recovered from the attack and has chosen to live life the way he does.

  2. Great interview indeed! What an inspiration!

  3. Great interview!
    This is what struck me immediately:
    "I practice positivity and happiness because whats the other option"

    If I could highlight, bold, italicise and underline, I'd do that to the word practice. So it doesn't just happen - it takes repeated, dedicated attention, like any good thing we want to learn.

    Thanks - that's what I need to hear right now!


  4. GREAT INTERVIEW!! Paul's story is one of ultimate struggle and triumph. Truly inspirational! Thanks for bringing it to us!


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