At the age of 18, when most of us were enjoying the freedom of adulthood, Mike Coots was battling for his life. But while a near-fatal bite from a tiger shark cost him his right leg, it did nothing to dampen his love for the ocean or the creatures within it – in fact, he emerged from the attack with a belief that sharks should be protected rather than demonised. Twenty-one years on, Coots is a photographer and conservationist, and HOKA ambassador, whose work regularly brings him face to face with the animal that nearly cost him his life. And surviving that fateful day in 1997 didn’t only instill a conviction for conservation, it also made him appreciate the joy of something he had previously taken for granted: running.
‘I’m much more fearful of hitting my head on a sandbar, or getting run over by a surfer, than I am of any shark’
RSNG How have you managed to find inspiration from your attack, when others would find fear?
MIKE COOTS ‘As strange as it sounds, a lot of shark attack victims like myself hold no animosity or hatred for sharks. A lot has to do with the fact that we love the ocean and understand the risks we take when entering into a sea full of wildlife – sometimes it can be perilous. I had spent thousands of hours in the ocean prior to the attack, and maybe if it had been my first time in the ocean my reaction would have been different, but once the sea casts its spell on you, you take the dangers with it. Sharks are a part of that magic.’
‘I am much more fearful of hitting my head on a sandbar surfing, or getting run over by a beginner surfer, than I am of any shark. Since the shark attack, I have been fortunate to meet some of the brightest minds on shark behaviour, and as I learn about their cognitive behaviour the more amazing and intelligent they become in my eyes.’
RSNG The attack happened when you were just 18 – how did you deal with such a life-changing moment at such a young age?
MC ‘I was fortunate to not have any emotional or psychological issues stemming from the attack. A lot has to do with the incredible family support I had. The community of Kauai also showed such compassion to me, I felt very blessed. The honest truth was I thought I was going to die on the beach as the tourniquet was applied, so to wake up in the hospital alive and relatively healthy (minus a leg loss) I felt everything onwards was borrowed time. I have felt incredibly lucky to be alive ever since.’
RSNG How does it feel when you get in the water with sharks now?
MC ‘It's exhilarating! I really feel like I am surrounded by dinosaurs. Sharks are my favourite subject to photograph, and that never gets old. Diving with different species, you get different vibes.’
‘Sandbar and Galapagos sharks are pure beauty. Lemon sharks are just gorgeous with their light coloured, cat-like eyes, and white sharks are all adrenaline and power – you never know what to expect. And tiger sharks tend to be shy and timid, although they can be curious – you have to do lots of redirecting when they come in close, by putting your hands on their noses to prevent them from wanting to bump into you.’
‘I was so nervous but as soon as I got a pace going it was the SINGLE greatest feeling I’ve ever had’
RSNG Why did you feel compelled to run after the attack, when you hadn’t for 18 years before it?
MC ‘The honest truth is I hated running growing up. I tried to get out of track and field in high school and would way rather surf or skateboard than run. Once I lost my leg and, with it, the ability to run, that changed. I longed to feel the wind, to catch up to friends or run on the sand to the next surf peak.’
‘Being gifted the ability to run again was a total surprise. My prosthetic endorsement was making me a surfing leg, and I didnt realise they were also simultaneously making me a running leg. I was literally handed this piece of carbon and titanium and told to put it on and run. I was so nervous, but as soon as I got a pace going and felt that inertia, it was the SINGLE greatest feeling I have ever had. It brought me to tears.’
‘I had been asked a million times what I can’t do with my prosthetic that I could do prior, and I had always said I could do anything except run. Now I could do everything. It was a defining moment in my life.’
RSNG How much do you run, and what does running mean to you now?
MC ‘I try to run as often as a I can, normally a few times a week. To me running is the freedom to move. And the runner’s high feels incredible – it’s nothing short of magic.’
RSNG Do you think most of us take the freedom of movement that running affords for granted?
MC ‘One-hundred per cent. You really don't know what you have till you lose it and regain it again.’
RSNG How did the attack shift your attitude towards physical activity in general?
MC ‘I would say it’s not so much the attack that has changed my perception of physical activity, but the people I have met along the way. A lot of my friends have spinal cord injuries, and I look at myself and my prosthetic and feel like I have a duty to not take what I have for granted.’
‘I took a quadriplegic surfing yesterday, and while he was being carried from the chair to the water, I walked unaided next to him. It felt unfair; technology can help me do what he can't. At the end of the day, we shared the same surf stoke, there was just a different means to get there. I hope to never forget how incredibly blessed I am. The luckiest damn amputee on Earth.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Mike Coots describe his experiences of returning to the water with sharks, running again, and mentoring fellow amputees.