Although he originally hails from Rhode Island, there was a time when Colin Cook, 25, was living the dream on the North Shore. When he wasn't in the water, he was either in the shaping bay cutting boards for himself or glassing boards for the likes of John Carper, Pyzel, and Eric Arakawa. But then, on October 9th, amid a terrifying string of shark attacks on Oahu, tragedy struck when Cook was bitten by a large tiger shark. Remarkably, he survived the incident. Despite his injuries and a grueling rehab, Cook is hellbent on returning to the water — a testament to his grit and to his love of the sport. Below, he describes the attack and his inspiring journey back to the lineup.
For those of us unfamiliar with what happened to you in October, can you walk us through that moment?
I was living on the North Shore of Oahu and went out for a surf at Leftovers. I was in the water for a few hours when I was suddenly attacked and dragged under water; it felt like an 18-wheeler hit me. It took me a second to realize what was going on, and then that flight-or-fight mentality kicked in. I hit the shark a few times, which messed up my hands a bit, and I was able to get free and then made it to the surface. I looked at my leg — It was gone. All around me, the water was red. From there, I was able to get back on my board. But because the shark still had my leg in his mouth, which was still connected to the leash which was connected to my board, he was dragging me around. That's when Keone Bowthorp, who's an absolute hero and legend, came over on an SUP and began hitting the shark with his paddle. I jumped on his board and he paddled me in. But the whole time, the shark followed us to shore and even got in front of us at one point, blocking our way in. We had to get in over this shallow section of reef. At that point, I'd lost a lot of blood and I didn't think I was going to make it, but they were able to get a tourniquet on my leg once we made it to shore. From there, the rest is history. I spent a week at Queens [Medical Center] and then another week at the rehab hospital. At that point, I really didn't know what I was going to do or how to get through this by myself, so I moved back to Rhode Island for further rehab.
Can you talk to me about the rehab?
It’s very tough. You have to wait about a month or two before you can even attempt to wear a prosthetic limb. When I was finally able to do it, it was so painful. The version of prosthetic I had was too painful to use, and I thought I was going to be a cripple for life. But then I found another company who does vacuum seals to fit the prosthetic and it's 1000-times better. I was able to slowly work my way into feeling comfortable again. I got to a point where I could tolerate the pain and the pressure. It's pretty interesting — they have so many different prosthetics for me that I've built up a whole quiver now. There's a company out of Florida called POA Prosthetic, who's worked with some people from the Boston [marathon] bombing and veterans who have lost limbs. That company has really helped me.
At what point did you know that you had to get back in the water?
Surfing is my life. I have so much passion for it. Emotionally, it's been a roller coaster, but I know I had to get back in the water. It's not easy to find the right prosthetic, because my amputation is above the knee. Without a knee, just getting to your feet with a leg that doesn't bend is really hard, and there's not a prosthetic for surfing for above-the-knee amputation. So we're building one. My buddy is an engineer at a composite shop, and he's helping to make me a leg. It's carbon fiber and pretty badass.
Have you been back in the lineup yet?
Yeah, I've been out about five times here in Rhode Island. About two months after the attack happened was the first time I got back in the water. It felt pretty freaky, but it's not going to keep me out. I just worked on paddling again, using those muscles, and I caught a few on my stomach. But there's no way I'm going to keep doing that and be a bodyboarder. That's not for me [Laughs].
Was there anyone you've met who's inspired you?
Mike Coots, who's a surfer/photographer/shark-attack survivor, has been great to talk to. Danielle Burt, from California, has also been great. She has the same amputation as me and she's able to surf. But in the rehab, I met a lot of people who were worse off than me, like people who are missing multiple limbs. They told me that they'd do anything to have my amputation, so that sort of put things in perspective. All of those people really inspire me.
Have you learned anything about yourself through this whole process?
Every day, people tell me I'm an inspiration, but I don't feel like I've done anything. When I get back surfing, I think I can inspire some others. I've learned that I'm stronger than I ever thought and that I'm capable of persevering through quite a bit.
On your Insta account, it looks like you've been training really hard to surf again. Talk to me about that.
Right when this happened, I went from surfing every day on the North Shore to just hanging around. For my own sanity, I had to keep moving. I've been going to the gym, swimming, working on my balance — Jump-roping on one leg and trying to find my new center of gravity. I'm really looking forward to not just surfing again, but surfing well.