You and Bethany Hamilton are both shark attack survivors from Kauai who lost limbs. Any special bonds between you guys? How does that manifest itself?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. There’s a definite connection. She’s like my sister. We have this kind of unspoken bond that we’re in this club together that nobody else is a part of. It’s obvious whenever we’re surfing or hanging. And other people pick up on it. It’s like, “Whoa there’s two shark attack victims side by side. One’s missing an arm, the other’s missing a leg.” However, I’ve known her long before the attack too, and we’re close family friends. When she came to in the hospital right out of surgery, she opened her eyes and I was right there. The first person to see her as she came out of surgery. So we have that special moment too.
How was the return to being active in the water with a prosthetic?
I was a bodyboarder until after the attack. It wasn’t until I went to Santa Barbara for college, where the waves aren’t good for bodyboarding at all, that I picked up surfing.
One day, I took a long surfboard out at Leadbetter Beach and I remember walking to the water’s edge. I started to walk into the water to test if this thing [prosthetic] was going to fall apart. I got up to my knees in the water and it was holding on. A little further in the water and I was able to get onto the board and paddle. It felt like uncharted waters because they tell you not to take it in the water, that it’s going to break and insurance won’t cover it if anything happens. You’re really told not to do what I do with it. So I got out there and I tried to stand up and it was one of those, let’s take it one step at a time things. Literally. And the thing wasn’t falling apart. It wasn’t disintegrating before my eyes and I came in and I washed it out and it was fine.
The next prosthetic I got made for me, I had them build in a ridge on the socket so that the leash wouldn’t slide down all the way to the ankle and want to pull. I realized that if I could have the leash stay higher up, almost like how longboarders do it, there’s less pulling. From there, I figured out how to make a surf strap to really hold on in bigger surf and what ankles work the best. I always thought it would be better to have a real flexible ankle because I’d be able to get really low and barrel ride. If it wasn’t flexible, I’d bend down and be tip-toeing, if that makes sense. Unfortunately, with the really flexible ankle, I had no drive on the bottom turn, so I learned the fine line between flex and not. A piece of rubber and metal, unfortunately, doesn’t know when to flex and not flex, so I learned what the best stiffness is. I also learned all about the angle both in and out that the foot plays in my positioning on the board. My prosthetic foot sits out to the right a little more so I’m able to compensate.
Tow surfing really seems to help figure this out because you can really feel the mechanics of the board, whereas sometimes if you’re surfing a beach break, everything’s happening so fast that you don’t really have time to analyze things. If you’re behind a ski, you can get a feel for the sweet spot.
So the prosthetic is easier to manage when you’re tow surfing?
Yea, but in ways it’s all kind of the same. It’s just trying to be on the sweet spot where you get the most response. With my prosthetic, I can step on a penny in the road and feel that penny under my foot. So I can actually feel the deck pad with my fake leg and know where I am on the pad without looking at it so I can shift around that way. Your brain, after a while, starts to be able to figure it out.
You seem to have conquered the concept of fear. How did you manage that?
It all comes back to growing up on this rugged island. Y’know, growing up here with Andy [Irons] and those guys, you see the craziest things go down. You learn that life isn’t meant to be played safe. That’s our upbringing. The more radical and the more you feel alive, the better life is. You can sit at home on the couch all you want, but are you really living life?
What’s next for Mike Coots in photography, surfing and conservation?
Bethany and I have a foundation (Friends of Bethany) where we help a lot of disabled kids and amputees. I’d really like to start working with 3D printers. I know they’re starting to print carbon fiber and make prosthetic parts for people who need them. For example, a bolt that breaks in your prosthetic would cost hundreds of dollars but literally pennies to make. The American medical system is so corrupt and broken that a lot of people can’t afford things that they should be able to have. If you’re able to print that part out for very cheap, it’d be awesome to have these printers around the country and help out people in need. That’s a big goal of mine.
Shark conservation stuff too with all the attacks we’ve had in Maui. I really hope there aren’t any more fatalities because I have a feeling our Hawaii state government might start doing a similar type of culling program because we’re so heavy on tourism. If that were to happen, I’d obviously want to be the first one to stop all that stuff.
The photography thing is wonderful to be able to document and shoot, but it’s not an end-all. It pays the bills and it’s really enjoyable, but I really find my passion in helping kids like this morning with Bethany. That’s really what I hope the future brings.