Victim turns experience of Stinson shark attack into lesson about life
AUTHOR: Jonathan Kathrein, standing on Rodeo Beach, has written a children's book, 'Don't Fear the Shark,' which discusses sharks, the environment, and interpersonal relationships. Kathrein based his book on his experience of being attacked by a shark off Stinson Beach. IJ photo/Alan Dep
Jonathan Kathrein, who suffered wounds that took 200 stitches to close after a shark attack at Stinson Beach, is using the horrifying incident to help others.
Kathrein, a 24-year-old Berkeley resident who grew up in Lucas Valley, will have a children's book published next week that combines his experience in the jaws of a great white shark with his job as the founder of a nonprofit organization specializing in conflict resolution for children.
The text, along with a San Rafael friend's illustrations, will be part of his lectures about how to treat people and the environment better.
"The book looks at how our actions affect others," he said.
Kathrein's family moved from Illinois to Marin County when he was 6 years old. He attended Dixie Elementary School and Miller Creek Middle School before heading to high school at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco.
Kathrein said he enjoyed boogie-boarding at Stinson Beach on family trips and, after getting his driver's license, headed out with friends whenever possible.
"I started boogie-boarding almost every week," he said.
On Aug. 26, 1998, Kathrein and a buddy headed for Stinson even though his friend didn't have a wet suit. They both got in the water, but his friend went back to the beach after half an hour because of the cold water.
Kathrein said he was in about 6 feet of water, roughly 50 yards offshore from the Stinson Beach lifeguard tower, when he started swimming south against the current. While looking toward the beach, his right hand bonked into something that wasn't quite solid and wasn't soft either, but was definitely rough.
Kathrein turned his head for a look but didn't see anything. He continued swimming, but got nervous as his mind eliminated jellyfish and other possibilities based on what he felt.
"I turned to head into shore and kind of started to panic when I had a sixth sense something was in the water with me," he said.
Although lifeguards claim Kathrein started screaming seconds before the attack, he doesn't remember doing it. All he recalls is being slammed by a 12-foot shark from below his right side.
"I never imagined it would hit so hard," he said. "It was like getting hit by a boat."
The shark pushed Kathrein out of the water, clamped down on his right leg between the knee and hip, pulled him below the surface and began to swim away. Kathrein thought he was being eaten alive.
"I didn't know what it was going to do," he said. "I was worried it was going to pull my leg off."
As the shark swam with him dangling from its mouth, Kathrein opened his eyes but couldn't see much. He tried to wrap his arms around the shark, but its girth was too big.
Then, Kathrein saw the shark's gills and grabbed on. "The shark let go when I grabbed its gills," he said.
Kathrein immediately swam as hard as he could using his arms and left leg. The swim to the beach was more terrifying than the bite because he knew a shark was in the water - and what it could do.
"Now I knew how bad it was," he said.
made it into knee-deep water and people helped him to the sand. Lifeguards had called a helicopter by then.
He said his quadriceps was bitten clean in half and required an immediate seven-hour surgery at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. A trauma center nurse called his mother, Marge Kathrein, to let her know what was going on.
"At first I was completely in disbelief," said Marge Kathrein. "It took my breath away."
Marge Kathrein said she stood in the family home, utterly amazed at what had happened. She had taken him to that beach as a child, wading into the same waters close to shore.
"Even when your child is in an accident, you don't expect it to be a shark attack," she said.
Kathrein spent a week in the hospital and missed the first month of school. But he received a hero's welcome upon his return.
"Everyone stood up and started clapping," he said.
Kathrein enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley and graduated with a specialty in conflict resolution. Along the way, he told the shark story hundreds of times and realized he'd probably be telling it for the rest of his life.
After founding Future Leaders For Peace, a nonprofit that teaches children how to resolve conflicts without violence, Kathrein realized the shark attack could be a metaphor for his professional life. People had offered their boats so he could hunt down and kill the shark, but he knew that was the wrong thing to do.
"It wasn't the shark's fault," he said.
Kathrein called his friend Rob Singler Jr., a 24-year-old artist he'd grown up with, and pitched the idea for the book, titled "Don't Fear the Shark." Singler said Kathrein asked him to illustrate a rough story idea of a surfer in the water, a shark attack, reconnecting with family during the recovery, and setting an example by not blaming or killing the shark.
Singler, who finished the illustrations in a month, said he enjoyed the work because the project avoids the light, fluffy nature of most children's books.
"The basic idea was to get his idea outside the typical children's book box," he said.
Kathrein's mom said it makes her feel good knowing her son's attack will inspire children to create a better world.
"I have to really give credit to Jonathan," she said.