Maria Korcsmaros credits her triathlon fitness for a miraculously speedy recovery—and her tri teammates for helping with her incredible mental resilience.
It was Memorial Day 2016 and Maria Korcsmaros had missed her early morning group swim. Like any triathlete, the 20-year veteran of the sport wasn’t deterred—instead, she turned a mid-afternoon family outing at the Corona Del Mar State Beach into a training session.
“I jumped in the water at about 4:15 p.m. to do my laps at the buoy line [about 200m from shore],” Korcsmaros recalls. Korcsmaros had swam at that same beach with her training group, TriLaVie, almost every week during the warm season since moving to Southern California in 2008; she knew the area well.
“So I jump in the water, but since it’s Memorial Day Weekend, I’m by myself, but I’m feeling OK because there are a bunch of people on the beach, and there are usually people coming out there and swimming on their own anyway,” says Korcsmaros.
“As I rounded buoy number three, and on my way back to buoy number two, I got hit by something that hit my whole torso,” she recalls. “It was very piercing, very painful. I thought to myself, ‘There’s nothing else in the ocean that’s that big, except for a shark.’ I thought, ‘Holy shit, I just got bit by a shark!’”
Even recently, California has been a hotbed of shark activity, like the recent attack on a single mother of three who was bitten off of San Onofre State Beach in early May, or the multiple sightings near San Juan Capistrano. Both incidents occurred in Orange County, the same county as Korcsmaros’ bite. Experts cite several reasons for more shark activity in the area, including a rebound in white shark and marine mammal populations due to their protected status.
Though Korcsmaros had an inkling, what she didn’t realize was that she had just been bitten by what experts are saying was a roughly 10-foot great white shark. It’s an exceedingly rare occurrence—in 2016 only 53 people were attacked by any type of shark in the U.S., according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File. Thirty-two of those attacks happened in Florida. California only had four.
Thanks to the lucid, quick thinking of both Korcsmaros and lifeguards, a lifeguard boat had her out of the water in less than a minute. (Even a year later, Korcsmaros still affectionately calls them “my lifeguards” when she brings them up in conversation.) Furthermore, the paramedics’ quick response had her from attack to operating table in less than an hour.
The laundry list of damage was extensive: Three broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, a tricep detached to the bone (later reattached), a severed femoral nerve (her right leg is still numb from her quad to her glute) and a severed femoral artery that caused her to lose two pints of blood. Korcsmaros also suffered a punctured lung when her ribs were broken; the shark even bit through her liver and took a piece of it with him.
And yet after being in the ICU for three days, she was released from the hospital in less than two weeks. Korcsmaros was walking only seven days after surgery.
Though her plans to race Muskoka 70.3 that July obviously had to be scrapped, Korcsmaros blazed through her recovery to get back on the roads. Despite not being able to move her right arm for two months, she was able to do a small amount of swimming in mid-July. “Once I got the swim going, I thought, ‘You know, when I get home, I’m going to be starting physical therapy for the arm […] maybe I should get back to Esprit de She [in October],” she says. Korcsmaros was back riding a mountain bike on the roads by September.
Amazingly, Korcsmaros was able to compete with her TriLaVie teammates at Esprit de She in October. “That was very positive, and that got me going again. I got a lot of motivation by doing that race,” she says.
When Korcsmaros reflects on the experience as a whole, she’s far more matter-of-fact than you’d think.
“I think health is very important, and when you’re strong going into something like this—whether it be a shark attack, a car accident, cancer, any illness—if you’re stronger going in, you’re going to be stronger going out,” she says. “If I wasn’t strong and healthy, it would have been a lot different for me. Having a positive attitude, having that stubbornness and willingness to put time into yourself.”
Her next big goal is an Ironman—something she was hoping to do in her 20th year of the sport, but was clearly derailed by the attack. When it comes to open water swimming in the ocean, she’s already back at it. Already this year, Korcsmaros has been swimming in an area less than a half-mile from last year’s attack, named Pirate’s Cove. “It’s very shallow, very clear,” she says of her new spot. “There are a lot of stingrays, but the chances of a shark are very minimal.”
To be certain, the attack has left a small psychic mark. “All three times I was [at Pirate’s Cove], I had a little bit of anxiety,” she says of her early-season open water swims. “Just weird stuff that you wouldn’t think would bother you, and it does.” Korcsmaros is hoping to tackle her first ocean event since the attack at the Santa Barbara Tri in late August, but has been a little deterred due to the recent shark sightings in Southern California. “If I want to do Santa Barbara, I have to get my head around getting back in,” Korcsmaros says, as if it was simply a matter of falling off of a bike and getting back on.