At a glance
Paul de Gelder might be missing an arm and a leg thanks to a hungry Sydney Harbour shark, but he is now inspiring others to beat life's setbacks. He follows a simple motto he learned in the army: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Paul de Gelder wants to make it clear: it’s not just about the shark, OK?
From childhood delinquent and drug dealer to Snoop Dogg’s back-up rapper and elite navy diver, de Gelder has crammed much into his 37 years.
But to the public at large he’s still defined by an incident that took all of 10 seconds and accounts for just a handful of pages in his book, No Time for Fear.
In 2009, while he was conducting a routine naval training exercise in Sydney Harbour, de Gelder was attacked by a 3m bull shark. He lost his leg, half his arm and very nearly his life.
Emboldened rather than embittered by the experience he has since gone on to become an author, motivational speaker, TV personality and advocate for the creatures he had feared since he was a child.
“It’s not a shark attack story,” he says.
“It’s a story about overcoming adversity. Embracing change. Embracing challenges.
"I think people identify with it because there’s bits in my life that everyone can feel like they’ve been through: being a bad kid, not getting along with your parents, doing poorly at school, getting involved with the wrong people, getting kicked out of home, doing jobs they wish they didn’t.
"You can make that change to give yourself that absolute dream life. And it’s not actually just doing things for yourself – the biggest reward is in doing things for other people – it takes the focus off you, makes them smile and in return you get joy out of it.”
When I first meet de Gelder it is about the shark. It’s hard not to be.
His warm greeting on a chilly Sydney morning directs you straight to where the damage has been done: the prosthetic on his right arm.
There’s no sense of awkwardness. Like his leg prosthetic it is black, by choice. He feels no need to camouflage what they are.
De Gelder holds a piercing stare as well as his breakfast burrito and you quickly become engaged in his world.
Despite the odd admitted moment, he’s a man comfortable in his own skin.
That’s been pretty much the case since he made the decision to amputate his leg after losing 22cm of his sciatic nerve from the shark bite.
Not that self-ease was always the way. The son of a senior police officer, de Gelder was shuffled around suburbs and states as a boy, and frequently picked on as the new kid in class.
He struggled with girls. And just fitting in. He flunked Year 12 at school. Yet for a time he still did a good job of convincing himself he was the big man in town.
“When I was living in Canberra and I was just about to turn 21 I was dealing weed [marijuana], working in hospitality, getting the dole and thinking I was killing it with three incomes,” he says.
“But I wasn’t very fulfilled. People were turning up on my doorstep in the middle of the night to buy weed. I knew there was more to life. It [the turning point] came when I went to the farewell of a friend who was getting deported back to Papua New Guinea and I was jumped by 20 dudes … After that night I decided I couldn’t live my life like that anymore.”
The epiphany may have come but it took a few more forks in the road – a stint working at a strip club, and a fledgling career as a rapper where he and his band got to support American recording heavyweight Snoop Dogg in Brisbane – before he packed it all in to follow his brothers into the army.
From there it was like a light went on.
He rediscovered a love of physical fitness from his martial arts days as a youth, realised he enjoyed the discipline and began working on his mental approach to life.
Six weeks later he made it into the infantry division to train.
He went from the Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney to East Timor and narrowly missed out on going to Iraq before getting itchy feet and deciding to try his luck at becoming a navy clearance diver.
Expected to be able to do anything from underwater ship repairs to bomb disposal, dismantling explosive devices and engaging in armed combat and counter-terrorism operations, the divers are a navy elite.
And the selection process is regarded as one of the most rigorous of any defence force in the world: 19-hour days, 4km harbour swims, 22km runs, 80kg stretcher carries for 10km uphill – it was all par for passing this course.
“Every time someone handed in their vest [pulled out of the training program] I’d feel my resolve strengthen and I’d swear I wouldn’t be the next,” de Gelder recalls.
An already elite 22 candidates were whittled down to 10, with de Gelder earning an A pass on his physical test.
After completing a 33-week basic clearance divers’ course and further weapons and seamanship training, de Gelder became a fully-fledged navy diver in April 2006.
For much of the next three years life was sweet as he travelled Australia and South-East Asia in the glamour role.
“I had the dream job; living at Bondi, couple of different girlfriends – killing it,” he muses. “It’s amazing how quickly things can change. I was doing a boring job at work, a dive I’ve done a thousand times before and then all of a sudden I’m being eaten alive.”
Wednesday 11 February 2009 was supposed to be one of the more mundane days for the team – sonar tests on the naval base at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour.
The day had dawned overcast and the water was murky, but de Gelder didn’t think twice about doing a colleague a favour, taking over from him to swim laps between the safety boat and HMAS Success.
As he often did when he had some idle thinking time in the water, de Gelder wondered what to do in the event of a shark attack; this time debating with himself whether you’d be better with your arms crossed or in the water if the worst happened. He’d soon find out.
“It grabbed me by the leg – I was looking in the other direction, I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t feel pain, it was just like somebody punched me. Then I looked down and my worst nightmare was attached to my leg, staring me in the face," he says.
"I thought, ‘I’ve seen Crocodile Hunter, I’ve seen Shark Week. I’ll jab it in the eyeball’. But I couldn’t reach it. I tried to push it off. I tried to punch it off ... but it took me under and started tearing me apart.”
Instinct and training kicked in and a brief struggle ensued.
He furiously punched the 300kg monster as it dragged him under water again, this time believing his number may have been up.
Yet, almost inexplicably, the shark loosened its grip, leaving de Gelder bobbing in the harbour as potential bait for another creature of the deep.
If the mad scramble in the water was pure chaos, the subsequent decisions were exacting science – procedures that almost certainly spared de Gelder from bleeding to death in one of the world’s most famous waterways.
He held what was left of his arm above the water to stem the bleeding, calling out to colleagues who quickly got him on the rescue boat and applied tourniquets to his arm and leg.
An ambulance arrived in a short time and de Gelder, pumped to the eyeballs with morphine, was rushed to nearby St Vincent’s Hospital.
What followed was the real de Gelder story: a rational decision to cut off what would be a useless leg; an exercise program that started from the confines of his hospital bed, and with the object of getting off prescription drugs as quickly as possible.
Using his navy training he switched off his emotions, stopped feeling sorry for himself and overcame hurdles in small blocks rather than big leaps.
Still, he maintains it wasn’t one elongated self-motivation session. “I broke down quite a few times,” he admits.
“The first night at home I just laid on my bed and bawled my eyes out. Some days I couldn’t get off the couch or get out of bed.
"But in setting goals you have a goal and you visualise what you are going to achieve. A good friend of mine said ‘Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Just allow that feeling, identify it and then go and do something that negates it’.”
That initially meant fitness as a tool to control his body and brain. It soon became much more. Telling his story helped him and inspired others – from kids with cancer to corporates seeking motivation.
While he essentially had a navy job as a trainer for life, in mid-2012 he made the decision to pack it in to pursue speaking engagements and a media career – spreading the message of perseverance, grace under pressure and hard work.
And hard decisions. While it would have been easy to promote the culling of sharks given his circumstances, de Gelder did his research and went the opposite way.
He now advocates for their protection, saying it is vital for marine ecosystems that sharks stay as the apex predator.
He has a powerful voice on the subject, one that started with a speaking engagement lobbying the United Nations in New York and has seen him butt heads with Western Australia’s premier, Colin Barnett, over that state’s shark culling program.
With his extraordinary story of survival and the power of positive thinking wrapped up in what he describes as his “Terminator look”, I ask de Gelder if his story can be almost too intimidating.
What does he do if someone suggests they just can’t relate to his extraordinary feats?
I get my answer soon enough. His phone rings and he’s cussing and apologising all in the same breath as he realises he’s missed an appointment.
“By exposing my weak points – which are many. Like being late for my appointments,” he laughs.
“There are other things. I have problems with my prosthetics. I get pressure blisters. By exposing your weaknesses it makes people realise they’re just like you. I am no superman. I’ve just learnt to push my body more than what I think it can do.”
Paul de Gelder shares some life lessons.
“The three things that stick with me – and they’ve stuck with me since I did army training, was in a very simple mantra: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. I heard it and remembered it. I didn’t really use it through the military but after the shark attack I did. It’s not a one-size-fits-all mantra. I let people use their own circumstances and use what I’ve said as a tool.”
Improvise: “I had to improvise new ways to use my body and train. New ways to live my life. Using one hand to write and tie my shoelaces, to use a dustpan and broom, or to hammer in a nail.”
Adapt: “I had to adapt to my current circumstances. Adapt to my new way of life.”
Overcome: “I have to overcome the hurdles that are constantly in front of me, and that includes doubt, too. I’ve had to overcome circumstances so I could have a good life. No matter the problem there’s always a way to overcome it. And everyone else can, too.”