What Comes After a Shark Attack? Brett Connellan and 'Pyrophytic'
‘To grow you must move out of your comfort zone’. So goes the advice offered on motivational posters and the like.
In March 2016, 22-year old Brett Connellan was thrust out of his comfort zone in the most violent manner imaginable.
Surfing late in the day at Bombo Beach, just north of Kiama, he was hit from the side by a shark, and was saved by the courageous and quick-thinking actions of friends who rushed him to shore, jury-rigged a tourniquet, and applied immediate first aid.
The attack came amid a sharp rise in fatalities both over in Western Australia and the NSW North Coast. Headlines were assured, fresh debate too. Every shark victim unwittingly becomes a public commodity, used to argue for or against a cull, or to interpret our relationship with these prehistoric animals.
Though he lived forty minutes south, Brett worked behind the desk at DP Surfboards in Thirroul, and that was just 100 metres from my office. Swellnet covered the story, using the same grim facts as every other news organisation. Hoping for something more, I allowed a few weeks grace then walked over to see Dylan Perese and arrange an interview.
“He’s not talking, mate,” replied Dyl when I asked. “Don’t take offence. He’s not talking to anyone.”
In the months that followed, Brett’s friends organised a charity fundraiser at Shellharbour Workers Club. Much of the media was done by friends; Brett’s media appearances were conspicuously limited. The news that seeped through wasn’t good: he may not walk again, let alone surf. A crushing blow for a kid raised on dreams of surfing success.
“I’m very lucky that I had people around me help me through that early period,” says Brett now. “It was difficult to deal with what had happened and how my life had changed, but then also having to navigate my new life.”
Much as he can pinpoint the exact moment when his new life began, Brett can also pinpoint when it began to improve. Five months after the attack, a schoolteacher friend asked if he could come to his school and speak to the kids - tell them his story.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” says Brett, “but I just went into the classroom and chronologically shared my story: the attack, my recovery, where I’m up to with it.”
Afterwards, Brett’s friend told him the kids rarely sat still for five minutes, let alone the forty-five minutes Brett had held them captivated while he spoke. By his own admission, something was uncovered in that classroom. “There was something there,” explains Brett, “something powerful.”
From the beginning he never wanted to be that guy who was simply known as the shark attack victim. More important to him was what came afterwards, as the sheer randomness of the event only made sense when he kept looking forward.
In the intervening years I’d occasionally bump into Brett and always came away struck by his demeanour. No longer the shop grom averting eye contact, suddenly more interested in what was happening down on the desk. He now quietly occupied the room. He’d also grown more comfortable being asked about his story, which was still unfolding by way of physio treatment, public speaking opportunities, and work as a mental health advocate.
Meanwhile, he was surfing again. No longer with the old whip-like dexterity, but surfing nonetheless, sometimes even at the local slabs. However, surfing performance, as important as it is, was beginning to play a lesser role in Brett’s life.
“It’s a funny one,” says Brett, “Before the attack, I spent my whole life climbing the one peak.” Through school he had aspirations of being pro, then once that finished did a Diploma in Surfing Studies at Southern Cross University. Like so many young kids, he had tunnel vision for surfing.
“The shark knocked me off that peak,” explains Brett. “But when I was down I realised there wasn’t just one peak to climb, there was a whole mountain range. You know, take your pick. Go for it.”
Next July, COVID restrictions notwithstanding, Brett is going to paddle the Molokai Challenge. He’s also working on a film with Wollongong filmmaker Sam Tolhurst. The two made a five-minute internet clip about Brett, which, once it was completed, they realised was wholly inadequate.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘No, this deserves a bigger platform',” says Sam. “First and foremost, so many things had to go right for Brett to even survive, but this isn’t a story about Brett being attacked by a shark. It’s about telling the story of who Brett is now.”
Pyrophytic is the name of the film they’re working on. And the name? A pyrophote is a plant that needs fire to grow...