Fourteen years ago this week, Cape Town lifesaver Achmat Hassiem lost a leg to a Great White Shark. He went on to become a Paralympic medallist and a UN Global Shark Guardian. We asked him about facing fear, finding the hero inside, and making friends with the shark he calls Scarlet.

In 2006, while performing lifesaving practice drills off Muizenburg Beach, Cape Town, Achmat saw the thing every swimmer dreads: a large black triangle slicing through the water. The fin belonged to a 4.7m Great White shark, and it was heading straight for his younger brother Taariq. Instinctively, Achmat started beating the water with his hands to distract the shark. It worked – the shark turned and came for him.

In the heroic struggle that followed, Achmat very nearly lost his life. But he fought back, hard, kicking against the shark and digging his hands into a scar behind its eye to force it to let go. When it did, he felt part of his right leg break off with it. Minutes later he was picked up by the rescue boat.

Amazingly, when Achmat talks about that day he doesn't use the word 'attack': he talks about his 'shark encounter'. It changed his life forever, but only deepened his love and respect for the ocean.

LPF: You named the shark that bit you - and you got to meet her again!

Two years after my shark encounter, the Save our Seas Foundation invited me to go and try to find Scarlet. She had been fitted with a tracker, so we went out to Seal Island, that famous Great White hunting ground, and there she was. She came right up alongside the boat. It was insane. Seeing her brought back the adrenalin all over again. It was just incredible to see how big she actually was. I knew it was her because of the scar behind her eye. So when they asked me if I'd like to name her, I decided to call her Scarlet. It was one of the greatest days of my life.

LPF: You often say the world needs superheroes.  Who are yours?

The legendary swim coach Brian Button. The first time I met him I was standing by the side of the pool with my crutches – I didn't have my prosthetic leg yet. I was so shy because he was famous for having worked with so many top athletes. He asked me where I wanted to be and I told him I'd like to try the Paralympics. He said 'If you get in that water I'll take that journey with you.'

LPF: What was it like getting back into the water for the first time?

It was my friend [and fellow Paralympian] Natalie du Toit who first got me back into the water. She said, 'Let's get in the water and I'll show you the one-legged moves!' We got in the pool at the Sports Science Institute and my heart was just beating uncontrollably. Even though we were in a swimming pool, I could taste saltwater. The fear just ... it kind of played back all the time. I remember seeing the other side of the pool as if through a massive long tunnel. It was dark at the end and I was afraid of that darkness. I swam so close alongside Natalie that she had to tell me to stay in my own lane! Eventually she started coaching me. She showed me the importance of keeping your legs together to do a sort of butterfly kick – then I got into the mechanics of it and that took my mind off everything else.

LPF: They say that bravery is not about being free of fear, but about continuing in spite of it.

It helps if you have a good reason to continue. The time the fear really got me hard was when I did my first ocean swim in 2010. I was approached by Vista Nova School to represent them on a Robben Island crossing. I knew it would be a big task: it's 7.5 km from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand, and it would be my first time swimming in the sea since my shark encounter. I thought it would be a great move for my swimming career, and it was an opportunity to inspire the young people who were asking me to do it. So I said yes.

To prepare, I had to do cold-water training. I got in touch with Ram Barkai, of the International Ice Swimming Association. He and Craig Doonan met me at Camps Bay beach. They kept telling me that the water was too cold for sharks, but the emotions that ran though me that day were overwhelming. My mom was there on the beach too. She reminded me that toasters kill more people than sharks do!

I got into the water on my knees – that's how I get in now – and the first wave that brushed up to me was unbearable. We swam over the big rocks that lie on the bottom just off the shore – and I had to get out. They looked just like sharks.

When the actual swim day came, I still had this terrible fear, even in the boat heading over to the start point on Robben Island. Then there was this kelp bed you have to swim over to get to the beginning of the race. I couldn’t do it. I turned back.

The race was starting and I just sat there on the shore. A pit of sadness engulfed me. I thought about all those kids from the school who I'd met beforehand. I told myself to get back in the water and just focus on the race and the kids that were waiting for me on the mainland. I got back in.

At the end of the swim there was a girl in a wheelchair waiting on the beach. She put the medal around my neck and said thank you for doing this for us. That was the most rewarding thing ever. I was just so grateful. I told myself that from that moment I would strive to be as brave as I can be, not just for myself, but for others.

LPF: You also turned your fear into a powerful motivator.

Throughout my swimming career, I used my fear to drive me to be faster in the water.  In London 2012, when I got my first Paralympic medal, they asked me what drives me to be as fast as I can. I told them I picture a 4.7 m great white shark behind me in my lane. I wasn't joking.

Before each race I would picture that fin on top of the water, and a heat wave would come over me. I would stand there on the starting block and let the adrenalin race through my body. I used that adrenalin to get me to the other side. So you see why, after achieving what I did in my swimming career, I have to give back to Scarlet.

You devote a lot of your time to teaching young people to love the ocean, and sharks in particular. How do you convince young people that sharks are lovable when you lost your leg to one?

My dad was a fisherman. He taught me the importance of the ocean, and how we should respect it and protect it. He used to take my brother and I fishing. We would pack our school clothes into the car, go fishing, sleep out, and he would drop us at school in the morning.

I live in a poor community. There are a lot of kids with nothing to do, which is dangerous for them. I take these kids to the beach. When we get there we'll do a beach clean-up and I'll teach them the importance of the oceans like my dad did with me. I teach them about the impact plastic has on our oceans, about different marine animals and their roles in the ecosystem.

Our generation was influenced by films like Jaws that taught us to be afraid of sharks and showed an evil side of the ocean. I use a wonderful storybook, The Adventures of Shark Stanley and Friends, written by my friend Leah Meth. Shark Stanley gives them a totally different view of sharks. It teaches kids about the importance of our oceans in such a charming way. We'll go to the Two Oceans Aquarium and the kids will be so happy to recognise the sea creatures from the book. These kids don't often get to have an experience like that.

LPF: Where do you see your future?

I would love to continue doing what I do not just for my community, but internationally as well. Being an ambassador for marine conservation is amazing. I was proud to be named Global Shark Guardian by the UN Save Our Sharks Coalition. Through my work with organisations like the Shark Attack Survivors Conservation Group, I learned that telling my story at conventions could have a massive impact. It let me spread understanding of the importance of protecting sharks in our waters. Up to 100 million sharks are killed every year. Experts say that 30 per cent of shark species could face extinction.  We need sanctuaries all over the world to help repopulate them.

LPF: August 13 2020 is your 14th 'Sharkaversary'. What will you to do to mark the day?

Every single Sharkaversary, my friends and I go out for sushi. I'm not sure what I'm going to do this year because of lockdown. Maybe we'll have to meet online instead.

Antarctic ice seals are predators near the top of the food chain, and amongst the largest consumers of Antarctic krill. But because they inhabit the inaccessible sea ice zone, it is difficult to track them from boats or planes. Prem's team uses VHR (very high-resolution) satellite imagery to study the seals and their sea ice habitat.

Follow Achmat on Twitter and Facebook.

Download a free ebook Shark Stanley and Friends.