Sink or Swim (#97)

In past weeks, I have written about people who’ve overcome adversity to reach new heights. Paul de Gelder is one such person and his incredible story offers a window into how one can create something positive from a seemingly impossible situation.

During his teenage years, Paul spent his time chasing girls, shoplifting, fighting, drinking and smoking pot.  At 20, after waking up beaten and bruised from a fight the previous night, he realized that if he didn’t make a change, he “would be dead by 23.”

So, he channeled his need for adrenaline toward the Australian army and become an Army Paratrooper. Soon after, he fell in love with diving and became a Navy Clearance Diver, an elite unit focused on underwater combat and countermeasures. Paul had found his passion and was loving life.

All of this changed on February 11, 2009. During a routine training drill in Sydney Harbor, Paul was swimming and setting up equipment when a he felt a tug on his leg. He turned around and came face-to-face with the head of a giant bull shark; its teeth were sunk into the flesh of his leg.

He tried to jab it in the eye, but as soon as he tried to move his right arm, he realized that his wrist and hand were in the shark’s mouth, too. When he tried to punch the shark with his free hand, the shark started to shake him and proceeded to pull him deeper under water.

As his lungs filled, everything slowed down and he thought to himself, “You’re gonna die right now…you’ve lived 10 lifetimes in these last 31 years. If it’s my time to go now, I’m ready.”

Suddenly the attack was over.  Although he was in complete agony, Paul was able to summon the strength to swim towards the raft where his team was. They managed to stop the bleeding just minutes before he would have bled out.

Paul ultimately lost his arm and leg. After his surgery, doctors struggled to get his pain under control; he thought many times that he would be better off dead.

That’s when he made a choice.

As Paul recalls, “I remember lying in the hospital bed thinking, what do I do now? I’d fought tooth and nail to make my life amazing from what it was. I’ll be damned if I go back to that life before. I realized that was the only power I had. I might be laying in a hospital bed dripped up on drugs, and I can’t go to the toilet by myself, but I have the power to make a choice.”

What followed was nine weeks in the hospital, another six months of therapy and rehab and then an uphill battle lobbying the military for more advanced prosthetics. Through it all, Paul had one goal in mind: get back to being a diver, something the Navy initially told him he could not do.

Refusing to accept this as an option, he worked out harder than ever, learned how to dive with his prosthetics and returned to work as a dive instructor within six months.

Five years later, Paul travels the world as a sought-after speaker.  He’s written a book titled, No Time for Fear and is also a co-host on Discovery’s “Shark Week.” He’s learned to embrace his fears and become empowered by them.

When I spoke with Paul, I asked him what his takeaway was for someone who had to overcome such a major setback or injury. His response was simple: “Rest, heal and get back in the game better, stronger and more determined.” He also lives his life around the principle of Improvise, Adapt and Overcome, a mantra he learned as a young paratrooper.

Wise words from someone who has the credibility to give this advice.

Paul has created an amazing video of his journey and his training regimen. You can also learn more about his story at http://pauldegelder.com/

Quote of the Week

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Francis of Assisi

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