Hall Keeps His Cool While Among Sharks

Times Staff Writer

Sharks in the water are supposed to mean the swimming competition for Gary Hall Jr., not challengers of a life-threatening nature.

A spearfishing adventure for the Olympic swim star and his younger sister, Bebe, off the Florida Keys a few weeks ago nearly turned disastrous when they were attacked by a shark -- and survived.

“It went from being a really very scary experience to a very cool experience the second we reached safety,” Hall said last weekend at the Janet Evans Invitational at USC.

He emerged unscathed, but Bebe was bitten on her upper arm by a six-foot black tip reef shark, a wound requiring 19 stitches. Hall said his 28-year-old sister has had the stitches removed and was back in the water.


The Halls were spearfishing about 215 yards from their boat, and Gary said he had just speared a “very large snapper,” when Bebe spotted a shark. Gary told her they should go back to the boat and they were kicking at the surface on their backs, looking in the direction of the shark.

“Another shark, larger than the first one we saw, came in from the side, bit her on the arm,” Gary said. “I didn’t even realize she had been bit before the shark was on me. I was kicking it and punching it repeatedly.

“It was swimming after me and thrashing and had its back arched in a frenzy mode. I kept punching it in the nose and kicking it, and it kept coming after me. I was eventually able to get underneath it and roll it off of me. That’s when it charged toward my sister. She had already been bit, but in the meantime, she had enough sense to load the spear.

“The shark charged her with its mouth open and she shot it. Fortunately, really fortunately actually, she injured the shark badly enough, a lot of blood was pouring from its mouth. The shark was injured enough that it swam off. Otherwise, with her bleeding as much as she was, it really could have been disastrous.”


They returned to the boat and Hall said they cut a sling and used it as a tourniquet for Bebe’s arm. Once it became obvious her injuries were not life-threatening, Hall said his sister was laughing on the way back to shore. In fact, Bebe joked about the incident to Swimming World, which first reported it online.

“It was pure self-defense,” she told the website. “It must be credited to the women’s self-defense course I took my freshman year in college.”

Gary also was firing off his usual one-liners on the pool deck Saturday after his morning preliminary swim in the 50-meter freestyle.

“I keep telling everybody, if you’re going to have a scar, like a shark-attack scar, it’s probably the best one,” he said, smiling. “Most people, ‘I fell off my bike.’ A shark-attack scar ... that’s pretty cool. As a matter of fact, I’m a little bit jealous I don’t have anything to show for it.”


Ocean swimming, for Hall, has been a way to stay in shape and get past the routine of training in the pool. He said it probably refreshed him once he resumed training five weeks ago. Hall had the fastest time in the morning preliminaries (22.80 seconds) in the 50 freestyle and took sixth in the finals Saturday in 22.76. Jason Lezazk of the Irvine Novaquatics won the race in 22.51.

“I don’t believe I’ve been under 23 in season, besides during an Olympic year,” said Hall, who will compete in the USA Swimming National Championships next month in Irvine. “The training I’m doing now isn’t for this nationals, it’s for the 2008 Games. I’m giving myself more time than I did last time. It took me 11 months last time, taking into account that I’m getting older, 31 now. I guess I’m ahead of schedule. Maybe it’s a sign of responsibility.”

He won two individual silvers in 1996 at Atlanta, finishing behind Alexander Popov in the 50 and 100 meters, and added two relay golds. Four years later, Hall finished tied for first with friend and teammate Anthony Ervin in the 50, and in 2004 finally had the gold medal to himself, winning the 50 at Athens.

Beijing would be Hall’s fourth consecutive Olympics should he make the team. His family has grown since Athens: He and his wife, Elizabeth, had a girl, Gigi, about seven months ago.


“Everybody says it’ll change your life, but it’s not until you experience it that you know what they’re talking about,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly a drooling, screaming baby can win your heart over.”