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Petra Shines On
Rick Reilly
February 17, 2006
Petra Nemcova was drowning the day after Christmas, 2004. One hundred feet inland. Naked. Hanging from a roof. Crazy place to drown, on a roof, but there it was. "I was being sucked down into the water," she says. "Each time, for two or three minutes. I realized, I'm going now. It's over. This is how I die. I let it go. I stopped fighting, and it was pure bliss."
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February 17, 2006

Petra Shines On

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Petra Nemcova was drowning the day after Christmas, 2004. One hundred feet inland. Naked. Hanging from a roof. Crazy place to drown, on a roof, but there it was. "I was being sucked down into the water," she says. "Each time, for two or three minutes. I realized, I'm going now. It's over. This is how I die. I let it go. I stopped fighting, and it was pure bliss."

In a way, death would have been a relief. When the tsunami hit the beach of Phuket, Thailand, it swept the 25-year-old Czech supermodel and her boyfriend, British photographer Simon Atlee, out to sea. But then it sucked them back in and deposited them in all the debris it had raked up--metal posts and doors and cars. And one of these things slammed hard into Nemcova, shattering her pelvis, ripping her swimsuit off and tearing the love of her life away forever.

A supermodel lives out of her day planner, but, she says, "Simon taught me to live in the moment. He said, 'Any two days off in a row? That's the weekend! We celebrate!'" And they did, taking time to be together all over the world--from Cape Town to Miami to Vermont. Finally, Nemcova had brought Simon to her favorite place, Phuket. But now she was watching him die while he screamed her name, not to be seen again until he was identified in a morgue by DNA testing 69 days later.

She grabbed hold of a floating bungalow roof, but the debris smashed her body over and over. The pain was blinding. And that's when the water overcame her. "I stopped fighting," she says. "And as soon as I let go, I saw the blue sky again."

She careened toward a palm tree and grabbed it. She held on for eight hours that you just can't imagine--repeatedly fainting from the pain and dehydration (the hot sun scorching the gashes in her body, the waves pushing her under trash again and again), seeing nobody but hearing screams. Finally, two Thai men pulled her out, got her on a floating car door and paddled her to the hospital.

And that's when it got worse. "I was in such pain, even the morphine would only last for an hour and a half," says Nemcova. And it wasn't black water drowning her now, it was her grief over Atlee. What could she grab hold of?

Finally, on New Year's Eve, her doctor shook her out of it. "You must not drift into sorrow!" he said. "You must not dwell on the pain and the grief! Think of anything! Anything!"

She thought of a beautiful flower, and felt better. She thought of sunshine, and felt better. Within a day the pain diminished. As the months went by, she began to experience as much beauty as pain. Soon, she saw the duality of all things.

Take the tsunami. "It was horrifying, but it also brought so much love," she says. "It brought so many people together. The world is a more unified place now. People reached out from all over the world. People are helping each other. There's more sense of connection now."

She sees it in herself, too. "I used to think, All these models worrying about this wrinkle or that tiny ounce of fat. Why am I doing this? What's the meaning?" But now she sees it. A percentage of her income--including her work for this issue--goes to the foundation she started for orphaned Thai children: the Happy Hearts Fund. Nemcova has one of those, too, now--a happy heart. But, yeah, she has flashbacks. She'll be at some shoot, posing on some beach, and suddenly she will be flung back there, into hell. Simon's face. The palm tree. The screams.

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