'I Lost My Leg In a Shark Attack'

In the summer of 2019, I was about to close out my junior year at high school and take all my exams. I had an Ariana Grande concert coming up that I was super excited about, I had just gotten a boyfriend and turned 17. But sometimes life just gets you.

My family and I had been going to the beach in North Carolina a lot at that point in time and sharks weren't even a thought in my mind. What I was actually scared of was rip currents. I was talking to my sister and her friend that day, June 2, saying how crazy it would be if we got caught by a rip current. We didn't know that something way crazier was about to happen.

We were all joking around in shallow water, and I threw myself backwards, pretending to be a mermaid to entertain everyone. Then, I felt something grabbing at my foot. I laughed at first because I thought it was my dad, but I started getting pulled really hard, and when I looked over I saw that everybody else was further away.

At that moment, I had the thought of taking in a huge breath of air, which was smart, because I was then pulled under. I realized I was being dragged, so I reached over and touched whatever was grabbing me. It was really smooth, so I thought it was a turtle. But I started being thrashed around by the leg and then I realized: "Oh, damn, that's a shark!"

For a minute I was positive I was going to die, so I kind of made my peace. I remember thinking that I had a great family, a great boyfriend and that I'd had a good run. But then those thoughts made me realize I should probably get out of this situation!

I totally panicked, even though I had been taught in kindergarten what to do if you're bitten by a shark. I reached into the shark's mouth and tried to pull it off my leg and I remember feeling all of the tendons in my hand snapping. It was awful. Unfortunately, I remembered when it was too late that I was supposed to punch the shark in the nose, but I was sure my dad would come and get me. I was right, thankfully.

My dad punched the shark off me and when we got back to the beach, I had Ariana Grande's song breathin' in my head as I lay on the sand; I knew I needed to keep breathing. I was bleeding but I didn't know there is an artery in the leg, so when everyone else was freaking out, my reaction was to tell them to "chill." I turned grey, but there was no pain. I felt the way that TV static looks.

I was put on a boogie board and carried into the back of a truck and off the beach onto a helicopter. It probably took 30-35 minutes in total to get me to the hospital. I remember one doctor telling me that they were going to have to take my leg, and I wanted to cry but I couldn't. I just asked if I could have a really cool prosthetic and the doctor said yes. I told her: "let's do it."

I remember expecting my leg to be gone when I woke up, but my arms were in bulky casts and when I looked over and saw my mom, I asked her if I still had all my fingers. She told me doctors had removed a couple, and I just started crying. After that, I spent a month in an intensive care unit (ICU) and all my family who lived close by would come and visit and my boyfriend came to visit me every day. They all helped a lot.

Paige Winter was attacked by a shark
Paige Winter was attacked by a shark in June 2019. Paige Winter

Doctors fitted me with a prosthetic leg that they described as learning how to drive stick before you learn how to drive automatic. It was fitted about a month after I got out of hospital. That was exciting for me, I just wanted to get everything done so fast. Now, I have a state of the art prosthetic leg.

A month after I got the prosthetic I went into my senior year of high school. The friends I already had were awesome and when I first got back to school everyone was really nice to me. Later, a bunch of freshmen and sophomores made a lot of assumptions about me, saying that I was getting special privileges. My attitude was: I have a disability, so what do you want me to do? But, as senior year went on, I started becoming more self assured with my walking and I felt better.

Paige Winter was attacked by a shark
Paige Winter was attacked by a shark in June 2019. Paige Winter

I've been back into the sea once, but I prefer pools, where it's more of a controlled environment. My swimming isn't quite as strong now but I still love to swim. Me and my dad went back to the same beach once and we got our ankles in the water—that was nice.

Every time I had thought of the beach before I did that, I was focused on the attack and I had forgotten that there were a bunch of other really great times I'd had there. When I went back, I realized it was really nice and relaxing. That was great. It was good for my dad too, it helped him sleep better at night.

Before my experience I was a huge environmentalist and I had a positive attitude towards sharks. And I'm not mad at the bull shark that attacked me, it might have had a bad day too. Sometimes, I like to imagine sharks going to a big shark reunion and reminiscing about when some guy, like my dad, hit them in the face.

So after I got hurt, it still made sense to me that I defend sharks. I also figured that because I have been bitten by a shark, people might listen to my voice. When we get in the ocean, we're not automatically protected from everything in there. I don't think we should be mad at a shark for being in its environment and reacting to something else that enters that environment. Since the attack, I have worked with National Geographic on TV shows about sharks and I still talk about sharks in person a lot and on my social media as much as I can.

Of all the scary things in the oceans, sharks really aren't the worst. Attacks don't happen a lot and we can't live our lives being scared. Everything we do has a risk: car crashes can be insane and we still drive in our cars every day. We do have to be aware of sharks but not so terrified that we won't go out swimming or surfing to have fun. I might swim in the ocean again one day, but I'd have to go back in with my dad

In the past few weeks, I've also changed my mind about my future. After I get my cosmetology license and establish a steady income, I would like to go back to school and study the environment. It would give me a much wider understanding. You think you understand the environment but there's a lot of science involved and I would like to know all of that science.

Before I got hurt I wanted to go into cosmetology and when the attack happened, I thought that was out of the question. I was really sad. Then, I went and signed up for it and it turns out I'm really good at it. So really, I've just had to adapt. Everything is still available to me, it's just a little different now.

Paige Winter lives in North Carolina with her family. You can follow her on Instagram @probably.paige. Her show, Shark Attack Investigation: The Paige Winter Story airs on National Geographic at 10pm ET on July 12 as part of SHARKFEST.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.