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SLO surfer had ‘lost the stoke.’ A bloody shark attack brought it back

Cal Poly student Nick Wapner talks about recovering from shark attack

Cal Poly student Nick Wapner survived a great white shark attack. He is back in the water surfing and feeling the stoke again after his legs were bitten at Montana de Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo County.
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Cal Poly student Nick Wapner survived a great white shark attack. He is back in the water surfing and feeling the stoke again after his legs were bitten at Montana de Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo County.

Four months ago, Cal Poly student Nick Wapner was surfing off the coast of Montaña de Oro State Park when a great white shark suddenly chomped down on his legs.

The bites from the estimated 15-foot shark could have cost Wapner his life. But he instinctively kicked and freed himself as the fish twisted away from him, gliding back into the water, its massive, ferocious-looking head inches away.

The marks from that Jan. 8 attack off Sandspit Beach remain, including a patch of discolored skin by Wapner’s right ankle and a scar on his left shin that resembles a Nike swoosh symbol.

Although Wapner, 19, still has soreness and the lack of some feeling in his right foot, he said he’s 95 percent better and expects to feel fully restored soon.

“I went surfing again about six weeks after it happened and the skin was closed up,” said Wapner, whose stitches were removed about two weeks after the attack. “It was a little scary to go out the first time. For the first five minutes, I was thinking about (the shark attack), but then I got into the swing of things and I thought about it less.”

Wapner said that he has regained his love for surfing — and has a greater appreciation for life, too.

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A January 2019 shark attack left Cal Poly student Nick Wapner with scars on his legs, but he did not have permanent damage. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“I really do enjoy surfing and life in general more,” Wapner said. “Before the attack happened, I’d lost the stoke. But now, I just cherish my experiences. I realize that it can be taken away at any minute.”

The bites didn’t come close to any arteries, though they reached up to his thigh.

Wapner, who started surfing at the age of 5, goes out a couple of times per week, typically to Morro Bay. And he has been back to surf at Montaña de Oro near Los Osos once.

Despite painful memories of the shark attack, Wapner said he’d go back to Montaña de Oro again.

“The last time I went out, the waves weren’t that great,” Wapner said. “I’ll surf there again, when the conditions are right.”

Wapner, a sophomore communications major at Cal Poly, is taking an emergency medical technician program at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. The former lifeguard doesn’t yet have a set career goal.

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Nick Wapner back in the ocean kite surfing after recovering from injuries from a shark attack on Jan. 8, which took place at Montaña de Oro State Park. Courtesy photo

Wapner said that he was contacted by media from around the country during the week of the Jan. 8 attack.

That included calls from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles-area television news stations such as KCAL and CBS interested in hearing the Palos Verdes native’s story.

“It was all a little overwhelming,” Wapner said. “I’m studying about all this in my classes, but this was learning about it (first hand) and looking at what I could be doing. It was interesting.”

Despite being woozy from the injuries and medication, Wapner repeatedly took various media members through the sequence of events, reliving the attack.

“One question that was kind of baffling that I got was ‘How much did it hurt?’ ” Wapner said.

The answer? “A lot.”

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Nick Wapner, a 19-year-old Cal Poly student, was attacked by a great white shark at Montana de Oro on Jan. 8. Wapner suffered cuts to his legs and received 50 stitches. He kicked the shark in the head to break free of its grasp on his ankles. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Wapner said that he returned to class within a week of the incident. He tried to keep a “low profile” in a desire to let things to get back to normal, he said, although he had to wrestle with crutches.

In fact, he was in an oceanography class when a professor mentioned that being attacked by a shark is extremely rare. The student chuckled at the memory, quoting an unproven statistic that more people die annually from falling coconuts than from shark attacks.

The odds of getting attacked and killed by a shark are 1 in 3.7 million, according to thewildlifemuseum.org.

No Cal Poly faculty member has called upon him to speak about his experience, and Wapner credits his teachers for being understanding.

“The other students were really chill about it,” Wapner said. “But that whole week after it happened was just a whirlwind. My phone was blowing up.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.


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