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Shark Attack Survivor Staying Super Fit

Surviving a close encounter with a bull shark, former Australian Navy diver Paul de Gelder dishes on his high-volume fitness routine.

shark guy at beach

These days, you’ll find Paul de Gelder going all beast mode in the gym, cranking out sets of flyes, Smith-machine squats and deadlifts, training bodyparts up to three times a week and talking about splits, glute activation and protein synthesis with the ease of a veteran physiologist. But what is perhaps most extraordinary about him is the fact that Paul is a shark attack survivor, his story (literally) the stuff of Shark Week lore. Still, that hasn’t slowed down this former Australian Navy clearance diver, who now uses prostheses and specialized equipment to keep his workouts challenging. 

“I was probably the fittest I’d ever been just before the attack,” he says of his condition before being ambushed by a 9-foot bull shark in Sydney Harbor back in 2009. “I’d just completed an 83-mile race up the three biggest mountains in Tasmania and was one of the fittest divers in the two Australian diving teams.”

Fitness remains a passion for Paul. He even made a guest appearance on Australia’s The Biggest Loser earlier this year, giving contestants a glimpse what was truly possible amid seemingly insurmountable odds.

With Shark Week 2014 in full swing, Paul took some time out with M&F to share his story and the details of his training life post-shark. Paul will be featured on “Great White Matrix,” this Sunday (August 16) on Discovery.

Your story has been shared on Discovery Channel and other places. Can you tell us a bit for our readers who may not be as familiar with who you are and what happened to you?

I’m what’s known as a Navy clearance diver. The closest U.S. comparison would be a SEAL. A small team of us was conducting an anti-terrorism trial at a Navy base in Sydney Harbour quite close to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I was swimming on the surface pretending to be an enemy attack swimmer when a 9-foot bull shark came out of nowhere and grabbed me by the back of my right thigh, also grasping my right hand in it’s jaws, pinning my arm to my side. I tried to fight it off, pushing it’s nose and punching it but it was useless and the shark took me underwater and started thrashing me around like a dog would a small toy. The pain was horrendous and I had no illusions that I was going to die right then and there.

The shark tore off my entire hamstring and right hand and when I came to the surface I was desperate to get out of the water and started swimming to my safety boat. Obviously having one hand and not able to move one leg I wasn’t going very fast. My buddies said I was swimming through a pool off my own blood. Luckily they got to me before the shark came back and immediately commenced first aid. I came extremely close to dying that day and the surgeons said the bite missed my femoral artery by a couple of millimeters. If cut I would have died before getting out of the water.

shark guy at beach

Rumor has it that you were working out in your hospital room after the shark attack. How did you manage this? And…why?

It was actually one-armed chin-ups on the bar above my bed. I’d just had the rest of my leg removed after a week because I couldn’t feel or move it because of the extensive damage. I was lying in bed unable to get up at all and I was trying to work out how I was going to live like this. I was an extremely high functioning person and had a dream life before that and in 10 seconds it had all been torn away and now I was going to be disabled for the rest of my life. I’d worked so ridiculously hard to get to where I was that I decided I wasn’t willing to give that up. I wanted my dream life back and feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to make that happen. So I thought about what I would do when I was a paratrooper in the Army or a diver in the Navy. The first thing every day was PT, physical training, so I just thought, Why break a good routine?

I couldn’t do much, I couldn’t even go to the toilet yet but I could pull myself up on that bar and handle above my bed, I could do crunches. I had my mates tie therabands to the bars and handles around the edges of my bed and I started training. I knew that if I got my body working and building back up then my mind would follow. Training has also been my fall back in the military if I’m not doing too well. Whether it was a pack march, a 40-mile run or a session in the gym. It’s just your body and your mind working as one to achieve a goal, driving you beyond your own expectations and limitations.

How long did it take to make a recovery? How extensive was the therapy involved in your rehab?

I spent nine weeks in the hospital recovering but started my rehab as soon as I could -- before I could even get out of bed, I was training. My rehab probably took a few months but the pressure that I put on myself to live a dream life means that the training and learning to push my boundaries further and further out, never stops.

shark guy

What were your workouts like before the shark encounter? 

My workouts were all about functionality before the attack as I needed to be able to complete any and all tasks asked of me. As CDs, our jobs are hugely varied and we have a variety of roles we may be asked to conduct on any given day. From maritime tactical operations, to mine countermeasures, to salvage and repair and also land based explosive ordnance disposal. So lots of cardio, high-intensity interval training, swimming and bodyweight workouts.

You still look to be incredibly fit. What are your workouts like today?

These days my workouts are more about being strong with a focus on endurance and agility. I train in a Burmese martial art called Arakan, I break out my running blade and do hill sprints, swimming, yoga occasionally and lots of weight training.  This is constantly evolving and changing as I learn more about my body and what is good for it and not so good.

How has the loss of the hand and the leg impacted the way you train?

Having one leg and hand can make it very easy for your body to become imbalanced, which will result in unknown factors that can affect your health. Something as minute as walking with a limp for a long period or your prosthetic being a touch too short can throw out your hips and spine, stop your glute from activating, strain and tighten your hip flexor and result in severe back pain. So when you’re trying to achieve Herculean feats amongst your clearance diver buddies and prove that you’re still an operator like I am, you don’t need those types of issues. Without discipline in form and listening to your bodym all you get is hurt and that means less time training.

Can you tell us about how you’ve learned (or relearned) to train with your prostheses?

Every aspect of my training has had to be modified to take into account only having the one leg and use of my varying weightlifting attachments. From using a lifting hook strapped around my forearm cradling a dumbbell for curls or over a handle on the cables to changing from a steel hook for pulling exercises to a clamp for pushing.

Bullish Intent

Years after being viciously attacked by a 9-foot bull shark, Paul de Gelder still puts his military-born discipline into the gym.

"My split has just changed recently to an upper body/lower body split with a rest/cardio day in between,” Paul says. “This allows me to hit a single body part up to three times a week with out overtraining and allowing for a 72-hour protein synthesis window. After training separate body parts for quite a while, this new spilt has made my strength and size explode.”

UPPER BODY

 

Exercise

Sets

Reps        

Incline Bench Press

5

61

Dumbbell Bench Press

5

61

Incline Bench Dumbbell Row

5

61

Pull-Up  

superset w/       

5       

61

Lat Pulldown

5

61

Triceps Dip

5

61

Single-Arm Overhead Cable Extension

5

61

Single-Arm Dumbbell Curl

5

61

EZ-Bar Curl

5 61

Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press

5 61

Reverse Cable Crossover  

superset w/

5 61

Dumbbell Shrug   

5 61

1 Paul works up to his 6RM weight over five sets and, after reaching failure on the last set, performs two drops in weight.

LOWER BODY

“As my prosthetic leg won’t support me in the bent position, squats and lunges are done on the Smith-machine where my balance is supported. My good leg does 95% of the work so I have to do different isolation exersices for my right glute.”

Exercise

Sets

Reps        

Single-Leg Box Jump

5

10 2

Smith-Machine Lunge

5

12-15

Smith-Machine Squat 

5

12-15

Deadlift           

5       

12-15

Single-Leg Squat Press

superset w/

5

15, 12, 10, 8, 6

Right-Leg Cable Kickback

5

 

Leg Extensions

superset w/

5

To Failure3

Single-Leg Calf Raise

5

 

2 Paul increases height on each set.

3 Paul aims for roughly 30 per set.

Paul follows these workouts with 10 minutes of varied abdominal exercises.

                       

           

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