Shark Attack Survivor Uses The Open to Raise Funds for Eight-Year-Old Amputee in Need

April 16, 2021 by
Credit: Caleb Swanepoel
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Caleb Swanepoel, like many adaptive athletes, competed in his first CrossFit Open this year. But Swanepoel added another element to his competition: a fundraiser. The lower-extremity athlete used the Adaptive Open to raise funds for an eight-year-old amputee, Elijah, who needs a new prosthetic leg. 

Swanepoel’s story: Swanepoel, a South African athlete, lost his leg in a shark attack in June of 2015, body surfing with his siblings. 

  • “We were catching big waves… and I was slightly ahead of my brothers to go and catch this big wave, and as I came over the crest of one of the waves… I saw a Great White. I turned to my brothers and shouted ‘There’s a shark in the water, swim!” he says. “I had this feeling in the back of my mind that, you know, something was going to happen.”
  • “[The shark] slammed into me, pulled me out of the water, and bit my leg completely off. Long story short, throughout that whole encounter in the water, I didn’t think I was going to make it.” 

Typically, a bite like the one Swanepoel suffered severs an artery; normally, he says, victims of this kind of above-the-knee attack bleed out in two minutes. 

  • “You know, it’s a miracle that I’m still here today,” he says, explaining that after swimming — without his leg — back to the shore, it took about 45 minutes to get him off the beach.

Since the attack, Swanepoel has completed degrees in acting and business, competed internationally in para-swimming events, and been able to stay connected to the water. 

  • “I started surfing after the injury,” he says. “I think it’s important, I mean, three weeks after my shark attack, I went back into the sea, just to kind of cleanse and heal, and tell myself  ‘This doesn’t define you.’”

The fundraiser: Swanepoel started CrossFit three weeks before The Open. 

  • “I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself,” he says. “Maybe it’s an amputee thing, maybe it’s a me thing, but, you know, I connected with someone at a CrossFit box, went for a trial session… and I was loving it.”
  • “The coach is very adamant that everyone be a part of the Open, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I try and raise some funds for someone that needs some support?” he continued. 

Swanepoel was connected with Elijah through doctors he worked with after his attack. 

  • “When I signed up for The Open, I thought you know, let me try and do something for the practice that I’m from…. and I contacted my [prosthetist] and she said, I think there’s someone you should meet,” he said on the Expresso Show, a South African morning show. 
  • Elijah, who, on the fundraiser page, Swanepoel says is “passionate about cricket, running, and Spider-Man,” was struggling with his prosthetic and needed a new running blade, so he could get involved with school sports and activities. 
Credit: Caleb Swanepoel

To get Elijah a new prosthetic, Swanepoel needs to raise R60,000 ( about $5,000).

  • The Adaptive Open was the base of Swanepoel’s campaign; he completed all of the workouts, documenting and promoting the fundraiser through news channels and social media. 
  • He has partnered with Jumping Kids Prosthetics, a nonprofit that addresses the prosthetic needs of young South Africans, to provide ongoing support for Elijah. 
  • Once the fundraiser is complete, the organization will facilitate use of the funds raised and be able to connect Elijah with other young para-athletes. 

Elijah and his family were able to join Swanepoel for his last workout, which he says was “very special.”

  • “He was copying me, helping me wipe the weights down afterward, helping me sanitize, it was amazing having his support, as well as his families… just to be able to show him that good things are possible and to show him how much he motivates me,” Swanepoel said in an interview

Moving forward: So far, Swanepoel has raised just under R40,000. “It’s incredible, [and though] there’s no Quarterfinals, I can’t carry on, I’m going to keep posting,” he says. A friend in Australia, who fundraised for Swanepoel after his injury, is helping to raise the final funds.

  • Donations to Swanepoel’s fundraiser can be made online

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