From a distance, Colin Cook looks like any other surfer riding the waves.
But once he’s on shore, it becomes clear that one of his legs is a special surf prosthetic — one that he designed and built himself with friends.
A 13-foot tiger shark tore off most of the Tiverton, R.I., native’s left leg and mangled his left hand in a “relentless” attack off the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, in 2015.
Determined not merely to survive but to surf again, Cook, now 28, was on his board in the Rhode Island surf just months after the shark attack.
Not long after that, Cook was competing in adaptive surfing championships. He’s now taking part in the Stance International Surfing Association World Adaptive Surfing Championship Dec. 12 to Dec. 16 in San Diego.
Cook and his girlfriend, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Sydney Corcoran, 23, of Lowell, recently moved outside Dana Point, Calif., where Cook surfs daily, trains for competitions, and works for surfboard company Pyzel. The warmer climate helps Cook and Corcoran deal with their injuries.
Cook, Corcoran says, is her “inspiration.”
. . .
In the fall of 2015, Cook was a 25-year-old surfer living his “dream life” in Oahu.
He was in peak physical condition and was apprenticing for renowned board shaper John Carper of JC Hawaii Surfboards.
The morning of Oct. 9 dawned like a picture postcard: gorgeous weather and peeling waves off one of Cook’s favorite surf spots, dubbed Leftovers by locals.
Cook lived across the street and, as he typically did, decided he’d surf a set before work.
“I’d been out there surfing for two hours or so and was just thinking about whether I should start heading in when I got slammed out of nowhere,” Cook said. The impact felt like getting hit by a car.
It was a shark.
“Suddenly I was underwater, the shark had my leg, and I was a rag doll, being shaken back and forth,” he recalled.
The tiger shark attacked Cook’s left side. With his right hand, Cook punched the shark in the face and grabbed his surfboard. He got his left side free to see that his left hand was completely mangled. His left leg was gone. The water around him was red with blood.
The shark was “relentless,” Cook said. While other surfers fled to shore, one came to Cook’s rescue.
Keoni Bowthorpe, a standup paddleboarder and filmmaker, fought off the shark with his paddle, then ditched the paddle and lay on the board. Cook managed to claw onto Bowthorpe’s back.
With Cook on top of him, bleeding profusely, and with the shark chasing them the entire way, Bowthorpe paddled some 20 minutes back to shore.
“I was losing strength very quickly. I was pretty much dead,” Cook said. “I thought I was dying.”
By the time they reached the beach, onlookers had gathered; someone had called 911. Someone wrapped what remained of Cook’s left thigh in a tourniquet.
Lying in an ambulance, losing strength by the second, Cook resigned himself to the idea that he was dying. He asked the ambulance driver if he could borrow his cellphone to call his parents and say goodbye.
“I thought that was it. I wanted to talk to my parents one more time,” Cook said.
By the time Cook called, his parents — Glenn Cook of Tiverton, R.I., and Mary Beth Sullivan of Sugar Grove, N.C. — already knew about the shark attack.
. . .
It was around 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Glenn Cook was about to open a pre-dinner bottle of wine when his cellphone rang.
The caller ID showed it was Carper, their son’s boss.
His voice was rushed: “Glenn, get over here right away. Colin’s just been attacked by a shark, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.”
Glenn fell to his knees and prayed. In minutes, he was booking a flight to Hawaii.
Soon after that, his cell rang again.
“All I heard was ‘Dad! Dad!’ It was Colin. He’d borrowed the ambulance driver’s cell to say goodbye,” Glenn said, choking up at the memory. “We said our goodbyes in case it didn’t work out.”
Cook’s mother was living in Georgia at the time. She had called her son around 4:30, just around the time of the attack.
“He didn’t answer. I thought, ‘He must be out surfing,’ ” she recalled.
When she checked her phone a little later, she saw a text and a missed call from Glenn.
“Call me,” the text read.
When Sullivan heard the news, “I screamed and fell to the floor,” she said. “I was hysterical.”
Soon after, her phone rang. It was her son, calling from the ambulance driver’s phone.
“He said, ‘Mom, I just want you to know that whatever happens to me, I love you,’ ” she said.
It took four and a half hours to reconstruct his hand with 30 inches of stitching. He ultimately lost the top third of his middle finger, and the use of his fourth finger and pinky.
His leg was cut so cleanly by the shark that it took only 45 minutes to amputate the rest, Cook said. The leg had to be amputated above the knee.
“He’s a miracle kid,” Glenn said. “The doctor told us, ‘If you don’t believe in a higher authority, you never will. Because there’s no reason he should’ve lived.’ ”
. . .
Sullivan walked into the Honolulu hospital room and saw her son “connected to all these machines.”
“I went over and kissed him,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, when am I going to get on my surfboard?’ ”
For Cook, simply surviving — a life without surfing — was not an option.
A surfer since age 6, he spent years riding the waves of southern New England, from Boston to Cape Cod and beyond.
“He was a daredevil,” his father said. “Most kids were playing basketball, soccer. He was motor-cross, skateboarding, surfing.
“He was an extreme-sports kid,” Sullivan added. “Surfing was always his passion.”
And so the day after the shark attack, Cook was on his phone, researching surf prosthetics and how to surf with one leg.
Days later, Cook returned home to Rhode Island and eventually made his way to physical therapy.
It was a struggle. During the first few months, the pain in his amputated limb, Cook said, could be “excruciating.” It was so painful, he often took his prosthetic off and just used crutches, feeling utterly defeated.
Worried about her son, Sullivan connected on social media with snowboarder Scotti Trinler, who himself is an above-the-knee amputee.
Trinler said Colin should visit Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates in Orlando, Fla., and in February 2016, Cook and Sullivan went down. The trip was funded in part by 50 Legs, a Florida-based organization that aims to “provide amputees with the necessary care and prosthetics that they could not otherwise afford.” The group has worked with survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings.
“After Florida, I skyrocketed,” Cook said. “I went down there on crutches and came home walking. The No. 1 thing I wanted to do was surf again.”
But an above-the-knee walking prosthetic is nearly impossible to maneuver on a surfboard. And Cook found there was no special surfing prosthetic for an above-the-knee amputee.
“So my friends and I decided to build one,” he said.
Cook had graduated from IRYS School of Technology & Trades in Newport, R.I., in 2011. He’d majored in Composites Technology, working largely with carbon fiber.
He knew how to build. And so — with childhood friends and Rhode Island natives Brendan Prior, Max Kramers, and Stephan Vaast— Cook began building his own leg.
“We’d test and tweak, test and tweak on a skateboard,” he said.
About six months after the shark attack, Cook was surfing again.
A year after the attack, he placed fourth at the 2016 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships. Then he won the 2017 Hawaii State Championship and the 2017 USA Surfing National Championship, Adaptive Division. He finished fourth at the 2017 Stance ISA World Championship, and he won the 2018 USA National Surfing Championship, Adaptive Division. In October, he placed second in the U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championships.
“Surfing is my life. It’s my passion. It’s what I love,” Cook said.
. . .
Sydney Corcoran, then a senior at Lowell High School, was standing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon with her parents when the bombs went off in 2013.
Her mother, Celeste, lost both legs.
Sydney Corcoran had a hole blown through her right foot. A piece of a pressure cooker the size of a cellphone blasted through her right thigh and nicked her femoral artery.
After that trauma, the recovery was arduous. She suffered from PTSD. Anorexia became a coping mechanism. She couldn’t stand crowds or loud noises.
Many months later, her mother met Cook’s mother in the POA waiting room. The moms made plans to meet with their kids at an upcoming 50 Legs fund-raiser in Lowell.
“I really admired his attitude right away,” Sydney Corcoran said of meeting Cook.
“He was so upbeat; he didn’t seem to be letting it get him down. I was in a dark place,” she added. “To see this person who had gone through a life-altering experience, still working for his passion to surf again — it was incredible.
“Colin inspires me. He’s come such a long way, and I think he has so much potential — this is only his beginning.”
Cook now says that surfing on one leg is his “new normal.” Despite his remarkable recovery, his determination, and his competition wins, Cook stays focused on his progress and his love of the sport.
“I’m not as good as I once was, but it’s not really about that anymore,” he said. “I just love surfing.”
Corcoran noted that Cook “said something perfect the other day: ‘The journey is the reward.’ And that struck me. Because, sure, the journey is hard, and it’s an uphill battle, but he shows me just hold on to your passions, and they’ll get you through anything.”
Cook added: “There are a lot of days I get frustrated. Some days I’ll be bummed. But I’ve had great experiences that have come from losing my leg — I’ve met good people, experienced good things. I met my girlfriend. I’m trying to live more on one leg than I did on two.”