Taking life in his stride

I meet with Neal Stephenson at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg. An above knee amputee, he is in Johannesburg as the live model of Allan Oates; an orthotist / prosthetist at a prosthesis exhibition.

Oates distributes Ossur products in South Africa, they are the manufacturers of the feet that Oscar Pistorius is currently using for his daily activities as well as his sprinting feet. Coincidentally, Neal is good friends with Oscar: "I knew Oscar when I was a lifeguard on Plett beach. His family would come down for vacations and I would look after him."

Neal's appearance belies his 28 years, and he has that relaxed look of people who live by the coast. From Plettenburg Bay, Neal takes full advantage of the ocean and is an avid paddle skier; in the 2000 world championships he came third. "Nothing can keep me out of the sea and from competing."

This is quite amazing considering that in May 1998, while training he was attacked by a great white shark. At the time he was a professional body boarder, sponsored by a US company and travelling all over the world. "I would come home and practice between events overseas. I was out behind the breakers when I saw the shark. It swam underneath me, circled and then attacked."

Neal remembers almost everything that happened. "It only took a few seconds, but to me it was as if the events unfolded in slow motion. The shark took my right leg clean off above the knee the first time, on its second approach it went for my other leg."

Neal came third in the 2000 world paddle skiing championships - an able bodies competition. Pics by Prosthetic Solutions.

Things get fuzzy after this, but somehow he fought off the shark, retrieved his board and made his way onto the beach.

"I was too weak to scream and no-one had seen what had happened, but they quickly realised something was wrong when I hit the beach.

"I was 22 at the time but my career as a professional body boarder was over. I had to accept life and move on, making the best of it."

After recovering from the shark attack Neal started paddle skiing. Unfortunately this sport is not big enough for him to become a professional, but Neal still travels and competes in various competitions worldwide. There are no disabled competitions and special allowances for disabled athletes competing in these competitions. "I compete in able bodied competitions, just like in 2000 when I came third in the world championships."

Neal also came fourth in Spain in 2001 in this competition but did not compete last year. "I am not competing as much as before. I have taken up canoeing during winter and surf skiing in the summer. With my canoeing I compete mainly in K1 river races. I would like to do the Duzi but my leg is holding me back as there is a lot of getting in and out of the canoe in the Duzi and my leg is also not waterproof, but I am working on that."

In competitions Neal has to adapt his approach as he is an above the knee amputee. "There is an increase in the degree of difficulty I experience because I don't have my own knee to propel my leg forward, so I use my hip to move my leg forward. So, for example, going up stairs is harder for me than someone who is an above knee amputee."

The sea is still a huge part of Neal's life, despite his experience of being attacked by a great white.

While Neal knows that his life was altered by the attack and loss of his limb, he is philosophical about it. "I enjoy life. Disability should not be a barrier. I know it is harder for others, such as quads. I was in a wheelchair for three months after I came out of hospital - but I do believe life is what you make of it.

"I hope that I can encourage others to pursue their goals when they see my life. Attitude is the starting point and only you can do it for you. You must leave the house, so to speak."

Neal feels his sport is of great benefit in this regard. "I would encourage people to get involved in sports for as long as you can. It is part of my routine and increases my quality of life. If I don't get out I start to bounce off the walls."

What about the sea? Is he not fearful of sharks? "I am not angry with the sea, I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just one of those unfortunate things. I am married and when we have children I will encourage them to enjoy the ocean."

Article Photos