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Pilates Versus The Shark
Leeanne Ericson, 39, turned to the method after a brutal attack that almost killed her.
Leeanne Ericson, as told to Beth Johnson 

When the great white shark ’s teeth tore into the back of my thigh, I screamed with a terror I never thought possible. In the time it took my boyfriend to turn his head towards the sound, I had already been dragged underwater.


April 29, 2017, was a gorgeous day at San Onofre State Beach in Southern California. While my boyfriend Dusty Phillips paddled out on his surfboard, I swam alongside him in my wetsuit and fins until we were in deep water, about 75 yards from the shoreline. I grew up a block from the beach in Oceanside, CA, about 30 minutes south of San Onofre, with ten siblings. Being in the water had always been my second home, and I was a really strong swimmer. If I had a bad day, a swim in the ocean always grounded me. I just loved it.

We were hanging out in the water, horsing around on Dusty’s board, when a set of waves appeared in the distance. I jumped back into the water so Dusty could go catch one, and started to swim back to shore.


Moments later, it felt as if razor blades were ripping into the back of my right thigh, and there was enormous pressure on my leg. I knew in a second that it was a shark, and it wasn’t letting go. I was folded over its body, with my leg in its mouth. The shark was dragging me down towards the bottom of the ocean so fast, trying to drown me.


I remember time slowing down as the water got darker. I first thought of my three kids, and how I didn’t want them to be sad without me. I thought of Dusty, and how I didn’t want him to feel bad. Adrenaline and survival mode kicked in and I started punching and hitting the shark and trying to push it off me. Then I saw its eye and thought, that’s something I can hurt. The next thing I knew, my whole hand was in its eye. It felt like a bowl of Jell-O. The shark jerked its head, ripping off a big chunk of my leg. In an instant, it was gone and I floated up to the surface.


Dusty had been frantically looking for me when I resurfaced about 25 yards away from him. We locked eyes and he raced towards me with his board trailing him on a leash. He lifted me onto his board and tried to stop the bleeding, but the wound was far too big to hold closed. The entire back of my upper leg was gone. My femur was showing, and Dusty could see my hipbone and the back of my knee. All the soft tissue and muscles from the crease of my butt to the back of my knee were gone. A huge pool of my blood surrounded us.

Dusty held me on his board and started to swim ashore. I could hear the panic in his voice as he kept screaming “Help! Shark!” The beach was filled with people but the offshore wind muffled his cries. But he kept swimming and screaming.


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September - October 2019