Softball player who fought off shark: 'I'm glad it happened to me'

Caitlyn Taylor says both of her legs were in the shark's mouth; she used her fists to free them. The shark preyed upon the wrong player. Courtesy Caitlyn Taylor

In those seven seconds, Caitlyn Taylor didn't have time for thoughts. She didn't have time for fear. She didn't have time for doubt.

The softball player at Atherton High School (Louisville, Ky.) was swimming behind SunDestin Beach Resort in Destin, Florida, with five of her teammates, on April 2. They were competing in a tournament that week.

"Look!" one girl exclaimed, as the group was approximately 75 feet from the shoreline and in shoulder-deep water. "There's a dolphin!"

Taylor looked. A wave had crested, but in a matter of seconds, she saw that the animal emerging was not a dolphin. Not even close. A shark charged toward her; she turned to swim away.

But couldn't.

The shark lifted her out of the water and seized both of her legs in its mouth.

The shark bit down. Without any hesitation, Taylor punched the shark on its head, over and over and over, the adrenaline shooting through her arms as her legs grew weak during the battle. Finally, the shark, which she estimated at 5 feet, let her go and swam off.

"It was just instinct for me to hit it," said Taylor, whose fingers have some very faint imprints from the shark's teeth, "because of the adrenaline, and how much in shock I was, it happened so fast."

"When you play sports, you're constantly going through -- not to this extreme -- intense pressure situations," Taylor said, "and I think a lot of people who don't go through those types of situations every day, when they face something that's a little scary -- or very scary like this one was -- most people would shy away from it or get scared or give up."

"I think being an athlete and going through situations like that definitely helped me."

This is the first time Taylor is talking about the incident publicly. She has been bombarded by media. Hesitant to steal even a glimmer of her team's light, Taylor feels undeserving of the attention that's surrounded her. She doesn't feel like a hero, someone brave enough to save her own life.

But Taylor, 17, a junior pitcher/shortstop who aspires to play college softball, is a survivor. Miraculously, Taylor has been cleared to play again, just about three weeks since receiving approximately 130 stitches -- including about 90 in her left leg -- to tend to roughly 23 tears and puncture wounds.

Last weekend, she threw in her backyard for the first time since the attack -- about 200 pitches one day. She returned to practice this week, fielding ground balls for the first time, but is taking it day by day to monitor how the inside of her wounds are healing.

"She's just a fighter," said her sister, Paige, who was in the water and escaped unscathed, as did the rest of the girls. Paige did feel the shark brush by her feet; she thought it was a small fish.

"I know if it was me, that would have freaked me out and really set me back a little bit, but I think it shows how strong she is," the 14-year-old Paige said. "She has such a good spirit and she didn't let it get the best of her."

'I can take it'

The first thing Taylor said when her stretcher was wheeled into the emergency room, her legs wrapped in towels as blood seeped through, was not to ask if she would be able to walk again or if she would be able to play again.

"I'm glad it happened to me," Taylor said.

Her parents, Tracey and Mark, were confused. "What do you mean?"

Taylor said she was relieved the shark did not get to her teammates. She described what could have happened if each individual was attacked and breathed a sigh of relief each one was safe.

"I'm glad it happened to me," Taylor repeated, "because I can take it."

Mark shook his head. He wasn't surprised. That's Taylor. She craves hitting against the top pitchers, especially in a bases loaded, two-out, type of situation, on the club circuit (she plays for the Louisville Stunners).

Sitting in a wheelchair in the dugout, cheering on her teammates, Taylor refused to leave for the rest of the Florida tournament. She didn't want anyone to feel sorry for her. She didn't take the prescribed amount of pain relievers for the next three days. She was given crutches but refused to hobble on two, opting for just one.

All she wanted was to be on the field with her team.

"I just thought, 'How is she not traumatized by this? How is she so calm?" said Mark, an assistant coach for Atherton. "It's humbling when you see somebody at that age go through this type of event and they come out on the other side. I look back and I think, this didn't change her or make her stronger. It just brought out what her true character was."

Tracey was on the beach at the time of the attack, but Mark was across the street with their son, Reese. Mark rushed over when he saw the ambulance and his daughter lying on a stretcher. She waved to him. Panicked, he asked what happened and if she was OK. Taylor looked at her father and broke into a smile, giving him a thumbs up.

Taylor has carried herself with the same grace since, even if nightmares kept her up for the first week, and the wounds, deep and jagged, pierced her legs. The support from her family, teammates and coaches helped her through.

The day after the attack, her teammates threw her a party. They bought her tiny shark figurines -- including one you can squeeze and a human leg pops out of its mouth -- plus a shark coffee mug that says "bite me," some shark teeth and a T-shirt with "Shark Bait" on the front, and her softball number, 6, on the back; there is a bite taken out of the side of the shirt. She loved them all.

"Her teammates kept her from dwelling on the 'what could have happened' thoughts," Tracey said. "They kept it positive and that helped everyone keep it positive for her."

Taylor itched to get back on the field. Unable to play, she'd complete core workouts at practice. Once, a few stitches popped out. She bled and the coaches had to force her to stop. "I'm fine," Taylor said.

Her speedy recovery is extraordinary considering the attacker. George H. Burgess, director of the program for shark research at the University of Florida, said based on the bite marks it seems likely to have been perpetrated by a bull shark in the 7-7½-foot range (he is still investigating).

"She met one of the more dangerous of the sharks," Burgess said, "and was able to come away with survivable injuries and no loss of functions."

Taylor will have to wear protective wraps and padding over her knees while she plays until she fully heals.

At first, she was worried about the appearance of the scars that travel up and down her legs. But now, she is embracing them. She is considering getting a tattoo of a small shark. She intends to return to the ocean.

"It's kind of a badge of honor, for how she reacted in what could have been a horrible situation for herself," Tracey said. "I think she realizes how lucky she was and how she really saved her own life in how she responded to it."

Last Friday, Taylor attended her school's prom, something she wasn't sure she'd be able to do. She wore a red dress that had a slit on the side, baring the scars on her left leg.

She danced.