Paul was just 23 when he first served his country as a paratrooper in the Australian Army and just 28 when he qualified as a clearance diver for the Australian Navy.
A career in the military proved a natural fit for the self-confessed dare devil who had lacked direction in his early teens and whose formative years had been plagued by bullying and self-harming.
“I didn’t get a lot of life instruction from my parents and I wasn’t really prepared through my teenage years to be a part of the civilian world. I joined the army because I was failing at everything I tried to do,” he says.
Able Seaman de Gelder didn’t then know it but before the decade was out he would add shark attack survivor, motivational speaker and wildlife advocate to his burgeoning list of achievements.
The 11th of February, 2009 was the day when Paul’s life trajectory took a radical turn.
Participating in a routine anti-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harbour, he felt “a mighty whack” on his leg and looked down to see a three-metre bull shark circling nearby.
The attack made Paul an instant amputee, destroying his right hand and forearm, removing much of his hamstring and part of his quad on his right leg along with it.
During the nine weeks he spent in hospital, Paul decided to manage his own rehab as he didn’t believe there was anyone else up to the task.
“I wasn’t living in the US where they have all these soldiers coming home missing limbs and they have specific veteran’s hospitals for rehab. There were no hospitals for me. They wanted to send me off to an old person’s rehabilitation centre. I went home because I knew I would recover better in my own environment.”
Against the odds
Only too aware that learning how to use his only non-master hand to write, dress and drive was just the start of a long journey, the early post-accident days proved more arduous than he could ever have imagined.
Physically, emotionally and mentally everything was a challenge.
“When you’re up and about and you’re moving around the pain isn’t as intense but when you go to bed at night and you have nothing but your pain to think about, it’s really emotionally draining and really frustrating. I cried myself to sleep so many nights because I just didn’t know how I was going to continue like that. At the same time I was trying desperately to get off my drugs because I wanted to go back to work,” he says.
“Then you have the emotional aspect of it where I was absolutely terrified that I was going to lose my career because it was really all I had. I was terrified of losing the only thing that gave me a sense of value, a purpose.”
With no choice but to rely on others, Paul agreed to accept help from a friend who selflessly resigned from his own job to assist him with the tasks he was unable to do for himself.
“I was dealing with a lot of pain. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was self-administering all my own medication. It was a bit of a rough trot there for a while but the biggest thing my mate did was to drive me to the gym on the army base every day where I learnt to use my body again.
“There were a few things I learned that I didn’t have experience of previously that helped me get through the dark times. I had to learn patience and perseverance because I wasn’t a very patient person before,” he says.
“Everything I did in the military I was kind of pretty good at and picked it up fairly quickly. But the accident put me in [a position] where I had to be really, really patient with myself and understand that I wasn’t going to be able to do everything straight away. It got frustrating because you know your capabilities, you’ve done it before, but your body just won’t allow you to do it anymore.”
But while his situation was tough, Paul was tougher and vowed that instead of letting the fear of failure crush him, he would use it as a motivator to get fitter, stronger and emotionally resilient enough to regain the life he had enjoyed prior to his accident. Meditation helped. So did the simple act of stopping, taking a big deep breath, letting it all go and then “giving it another crack”.
Central to Paul’s recovery was the strength he drew from finding different ways to overcome his issues.
He spent hours trawling the internet for the latest advancements in prosthetics and other aids, while also watching videos of para-Olympians and others who had lost limbs to observe “how they got things done”.
A new dawn
Within three months of his shark encounter Paul was back enjoying the Bondi surf. Within six months he was drug-free and back at work.
In the 11 years since the shark attack, Paul’s life has changed immensely
Having previously lived in fear of sharks, Paul has now become a fierce advocate for them. In 2011 he penned a book on his journey and following three years working as a diving trainer, he stepped away from fulltime Navy service a year later.
These days Paul earns a crust as both teacher and student, travelling the world as a motivational speaker while at the same performing hosting duties with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week documentaries. His side hustle is learning about the wider world through television work with National Geographic which even saw him become part of an antipoaching team in Africa.
While he now wears prosthetics where his leg and arm used to be, Paul says that for the most part he is at peace with how his life has changed.
He does not have PTSD, doesn’t suffer from flashbacks and to this day has never spoken with a professional counsellor about his experiences. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to him but he suspects it might be because “I’m a little bit broken”.
While he still has phantom pains in his foot and hands, his biggest ongoing issue relates to the toll his prosthetics take on his body when out walking, running or at the gym. The skin underneath gets worn easily and because he is reliant on his new leg there is little chance for it to heal.
While he concedes “it’s a bit of a pain in the arse”, Paul considers this just another hurdle to be overcome.
“You can’t just get comfortable in your misery and say that’s just how it is. That’s bullsh*t. I’m always on the internet looking for new technology. I actually have a meeting today with a guy who has created a hemp-based limb socket. Instead of being rigid like most sockets, there’s all this stored energy in this one that flexes with your body."
“That’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve always got to look at what’s the next technology coming out, what’s the next material…thinking outside the box by asking ‘what can I do to make my life easier?’. ‘Is there an ointment I can use that is good for my skin?’. All that little stuff.”
Yet perhaps the biggest lessons he has taken away from his experiences is not to concern himself with what others think of him and to never accept failure until all opportunities have been exhausted.
Paul says many of those who see him jump in and out of boats and swimming with sharks in his dive gear say they don’t see him as being any less abled than anybody else. Others see him walk down the street and stare at what he terms his “big black robot leg and a big black robot hand”.
“I can either mope around upset and embarrassed because everyone is staring at me or I can hold my head high, pin my shoulders back and walk with purpose and a smile. When I do that people aren’t saying ‘that poor disabled guy’ all of a sudden, they’re saying ‘holy sh*t, look at that cyborg!’”