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25th August 2016

Shark attack: Mike’s mission to help amputees ride the waves

After losing a leg in 1997, this surfer’s viral video captured the joy of getting back on the board

Mike Coots was body boarding in 1997 when his life took a dramatic twist. As he moved towards a rolling wave, he caught the attention of a tiger shark that was swimming just below the surface.

Before he knew it, he was fighting for his life.

“I just remember feeling this immense pressure pressing my leg,” he says. Mike managed to free himself, punching the shark in the nose.

The water turned red.

In a documentary filmed for the Discovery Channel ‘Shark Week’ series he recalls looking over his shoulder and realising he had lost a limb.

“All I saw was my leg missing; sticking out of the water – completely perfectly amputated. Then it just hit me: I’ve been bitten.”

That was two decades ago. In the years that have passed, Mike has become a shark advocate, a noted photographer and has worked with a specialist medical technology company to develop prosthetics.

Most importantly, he’s still in the water.

Mike’s Instagram account is a hugely popular source of photographs and inspiration. This widely-shared 18-second video illustrates the joy Mike still finds in catching the waves while wearing a prosthetic leg.

There was a time, after the shark attack, when the prospect of ever surfing again seemed remote. Doctors told him not to use his prosthetic leg in the ocean because it would become damaged and rusted.

In any case, the first prosthetic leg he was given did not offer the flexibility and comfort required for surfing. It seemed as though the shark had stolen Mike’s passion.

Custom-made and ocean-friendly

But a new custom-made leg, manufactured using carbon fiber, has changed everything. Not only can it be used in the water, it allows Mike to move through the waves on his board without pain or discomfort.

The video clip that caught the world’s attention was Mike’s attempt to share how surfing with his new leg makes him feel.

“I was surfing on my previous legs but it was uncomfortable because they were made of wood and metal,” Mike told HuffPost. “I wanted to show that I now have this new leg made of carbon, and I’m stoked! I didn’t mean for the clip to look so happy, but I do feel really happy and blessed that I have something to surf with that’s so good.”

Mike has been working to fine-tune the design of ocean-friendly prosthetics – and master the art of standing on a fast-moving board with an artificial leg. “It was just about rewiring my brain to know where I think my foot should be on the board, even though I don’t know where it actually is,” he explains.

“I can sort of feel little nuances with the carbon. Every ‘touch’ reverberates up into my residual limb and it triggers into my brain. Weird stuff, huh?”

Mike’s commitment to improving the mobility of amputees – and to advancing participation in water sports – is a lesson in how to turn adversity into triumph.

 “I love the challenge,” he said. “And, I guess, it’s inspiring other people. It’s a good visual, tangible thing that’ll motivate people [with prosthetics] to go out there and do things.”

Photo credits: Instagram

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