NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — It’s a bay, not the open ocean, and there are more than 100 other swimmers nearby.
There are no sharks here … right?
It’s the first time Maria Korcsmaros has gone back into saltwater since an estimated 10-foot Great White Shark bit down into her body May 29 as she swam off Corona del Mar. The incident happened not far from where she stood Aug. 4, as she prepared for her first race, the Coveathlon, a run-swim event staged weekly at Newport Dunes.
For Korcsmaros, the event isn’t a competition. Not yet, anyway. For now, it’s about training and control, a way for her to feel like she has her life back, to feel less weak.
She wants to be the triathlete and Iron Woman she once was. But her mind needs to get there first.
“I’m getting nervous now,” she said as she edged toward the water, where other swimmers prepped to take the plunge.
Under her breath, she calmed herself. She smiled.
“Just race jitters.”
BACK TO BASICS
Korcsmaros holds her rib cage and cringes. She can’t sleep. She’s lucky if she gets two hours in. The pain still keeps her up.
A recent doctor visit revealed something new — a chunk of one of her ribs is missing. She says that’s likely what’s causing the pain. In a few months, she could have the bones fused with a metal plate, but that’s major surgery and more recovery time.
Still, it’s huge progress.
In June, when the Register previously checked in with Korcsmaros, she needed help just to walk a block near her home in Corona.
She was shy about her scars then, too, not wanting to show where a shark’s teeth had pierced her flesh, punctured a lung, broke her ribs and pelvis and pierced her liver. She didn’t show the line on her body where doctors used 161 staples to fuse her skin back together — the line wound from her buttocks and her back to her triceps.
Still, people asked.
“It’s been show and tell ever since,” she joked.
Now she’s willing to show the scars, even the spot where the shark pierced her wedding tattoo, a drawing on her hip that shows a rose with a heart, a dagger and her husband’s name.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Can we see?'”
Korcsmaros’ son Lucas recently helped her fill out forms before she got treatment at SCAR Physical Therapy in Orange, where she regularly sees Jim Herkimer, a physical therapist who specializes in athletes.
She has gone to Herkimer through the years after various athletic-related injuries. She trusts him to help her body recover after this most unusual injury.
Lucas asked what boxes he should tick off. Arthritis? Yes. Back trouble? Yes. Blood transfusion? She paused for a moment, almost forgetting that she lost at least a litre of blood in the attack, before telling her son, “That is a ‘yes.'”
Herkimer recalls hearing about a shark attack in Corona del Mar, where he regularly swims, and then finding out it involved one of his patients.
“I am surprised at her ability to heal,” he said. “And her ability to stay alive.
“That’s really what it boils down to.”
For today’s therapy, Herkimer starts by asking Korcsmaros to do a pair of one-legged squats, first on the right side and then the left. As she dips for each effort, her entire body shakes.
Next, Herkimer helps her lay down on the table. The pain makes her cringe. She has been using an herbal painkiller since the attack because Tylenol and other pain drugs are hard on her liver, which itself is still under repair.
She tells Herkimer that a stretch of her inner thigh, near her knee, is numb, likely from a nerve on her pelvis that was damaged by the shark.
He warns her about taking too much of the sleep medicine the doctor prescribed.
“People become mean.”
Korcsmaros, 52, isn’t mean, but she is determined.
The competitive athlete started swimming in the pool even while she still felt sore from the attack. But her range of motion is severely limited.
She also went back to work a couple weeks ago, helping seniors at the Glen Ivy retirement community stay in shape. For now, she’s limited to leading water aerobics.
“It was tiring,” she said. “By lunch, I was like, ‘I need a nap.'”
Korcsmaros jokes that Herkimer has healing hands. Herkimer rubs her scar tissue to loosen it up, movements that cause her to cringe yet again. To beat the pain, she tries deep breathing.
“This one sucks,” he said, semi-sympathetically, digging into her scar tissue.
Herkimer wants to help her get her athletic life back. He’s confident she’ll return to 100 per cent of where she was before the shark attack.
“We have to retrain that strength, mobility and function to a level for daily life, to a level for a competitive athlete,” he said.
The Orange County Register