From the jaws of a croc: attack survivor finishes Midmar Mile
For 72-year-old Peter Knottenbelt, the swim was proof that he'd finally fought off the croc that attacked him
When Peter Knottenbelt crossed the finish line at the Midmar Mile nearly 53 minutes after he started, it was the culmination of a journey that started, in earnest, more than a year before.
On January 6 2018 he was in the Olifants River with his granddaughter when his life changed forever: the recently-retired former University of Johannesburg mining department lecturer stood on the back of a crocodile.
“We arrived at this place in Hoedspruit and my wife and other family from Johannesburg were sorting out the food and groceries and taking the clothes into the guesthouse. Myself and my granddaughter, who was 18 at the time, walked down to the river. We walked across it and, on our way back, we saw a sandbank downstream. My granddaughter decided to go onto the bank ... but I decided to walk around.
“As I walked around a little deeper and deeper, maybe a bit above my navel, to chest level ... there was sand and then sand and then sand – and then I put my right foot on something that clearly was not sand. I recognised immediately that it was a crocodile’s back. In that half a second or quarter of a second, it turned around, grabbed my leg and crushed the lower bones in my leg. And then I remember it adjusting its grip and smashing the bones again, and me being thrown around from one side and another,” he told Times Select after arriving back at his Benoni home on Sunday.
He shouted to his family that he was being attacked, but they thought he was playing a joke on them.
“I shouted: ‘This is no joke’. They realised that this was reality. I was left in the water slowly going downstream, being attached to the croc in its jaw. It was frightening, I must say.”
Rangers tried to come to his aid, but they couldn’t scare off the animal despite firing gunshots into the river.
“I was now quite weak. By this time about 10 to 15 minutes had passed. I was busy being carried downstream.
“Somehow or another, but I don’t remember how, I ended up with my upper body in its jaws. I know this because there was no other way that I was able to put my thumbs in the eyes into the croc like I was,” he said.
Eventually, the crocodile just stopped, and Knottenbelt saw this as his chance to escape – so he shoved his thumbs in with even more force.
“All of a sudden it threw me out of its mouth, about a metre. The ranger jumped into the water and came across to pull me out,” he said.
His injuries were severe: A broken sternum which was compressed into his heart;
Six broken ribs, two of them in two places;
Punctured lungs from the broken ribs;
A dislocated collarbone;
A broken scapula; and
A “whole pile” of, not just lacerations, but puncture wounds that penetrated his chest. He also broke both wrists.
Knottenbelt was treated on the river bank, and then rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Polokwane. Several hours had passed. He was taken straight into theatre and stabilised. But the medical staff realised he would need greater care, so he was airlifted to Milpark in Johannesburg.
“Fourteen days later I was taken out of this coma. I had 13 different surgeries. I had a through-the-knee amputation, and that saved my life because I had been totally infected.
“Forty-four days [after the attack] I came out of ICU and another two weeks or so in the ward. A month in rehab in Benoni and then back home for the recovery,” he said.
The Midmar Mile, he said, was his proof that he wasn’t allowing himself to be defined by what happened to him.
“On the day I finished Midmar a year ago, I was in ICU fighting for my life. As I decided I cannot just let myself stagnate, I decided to re-learn how to swim, re-learn how to work some of the machines at gym, and slowly got my strength back.
“Midmar was really my proof to myself that I’ve fought the thing; the crocodile, the medical problems I faced, and that I've brought myself back to reasonable level of fitness.
“Life was never the same again, but as best as I can, I have returned to some level of normality.”
Knottenbelt wasn’t the only disabled finisher in the event. Olympian Terrence Parkin came in first in the deaf category, and Aaron Putz won the intellectually impaired category.
But it was Chad Grifford who perhaps stole the show. He finished the “16 Miler”, which involves swimming not just in all eight races across the two days but also eight additional events. What makes him even more remarkable is that he had lost both his legs.
In the eighth and final race of the event, 21-year-old international swimmer Nick Sloman claimed victory in a time of 17:01. This was just one second off the record set by South African Chad Ho. Second place went to Michael McGlynn (17:28) with Daniel Marais (17:29) in third.
Marais described the final as “super exciting”, and said the performance of the women’s winner, Kareena Lee, would have given Sloman the confidence to swim a great race. Lee – who finished in a time of 18:20 in the race just before final event – is one of Sloman's training partners.
“They’ve both really been doing the hard yards and putting the work in. They swam yesterday, listened, looked and learned. It was a great event,” he said.