Petra Nemcova: Profile of a Survivor

Petra Nemcova — Model

While many had seen Petra Nemcova’s pretty face and graceful figure in magazines like “Elle,” “Harper’s Bazaar,” “Cosmopolitan” and “Vanity Fair,” the willowy 31-year-old Czech model first came to national attention in February 2003 when she appeared on the cover of the “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.” Born and raised in poverty in communist Czechoslovakia, Nemcova had been discovered by a modeling scout on the streets of the Czech Republic. She quickly conquered the the modeling world, achieving what many consider to be the pinnacle of modeling success on the cover of the “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.”

Petra Nemcova — Tsunami Survivor

However, by the following December she was on the lips and in the prayers of people around the world after her terrible and tragic ordeal during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. After spending 8 hours clinging briefly to a roof and then to the top of a palm tree while waves and debris shattered her bones and caused internal injuries, Petra Nemcova became a household name globally when she was rescued.

Nemcova had been staying at the Khao Lak resort in Thailand on vacation with her fianc©, Simon Atlee, when the tsunami struck, carrying Atlee out to sea and leaving Nemcova severely injured. When she told her story to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Primetime Live,” the program was appropriately called “Amazing Grace: A Story of Terror and Survival.” I had only a vague idea who Nemcova was before the tsunami, but I have followed her story with keen interest since then.

Petra Nemcova — Philanthropist

Petra Nemcova became known as a philanthropist after spending three weeks in a Thai hospital. During that time, she became aware of the children who had been left orphaned after the tsunami. Nemcova determined to better and improve the lives of young ones left behind in a disaster. In a December 2009 interview (which I believe was a re-airing of the original “Primetime” show) inspired me to jot down notes as Nemcova talked to ABC about the Happy Hearts Fund, her new charitable organization and campaign to improve children’s lives through educational and sustainable programs in natural disaster areas. Speaking about the orphans she saw in Thailand, Nemcova told ABC, “They didn’t have parents or brothers or sisters and they didn’t have anywhere to go.”

By the time of the 2005 interview, Nemcova’s Happy Hearts Fund had built 10 schools and 33 kindergartens in areas affected by natural disaster. Her current bio on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” states the organization has now rebuilt 47 schools and kindergartens, with eight currently on their way, and the Happy Hearts Fund currently “has presence in nine countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Sri Lanka, Haiti, India, Chile and Hurricane Katrina-affected areas of the United States.” Nemcova said the children inspire her. “They just make me really really happy thinking of them and their strength.”

Petra Nemcova – Author

In 2005, Nemcova wrote her life story, from her childhood in Czechoslovakia, through her career in the fashion and modeling world, her life with Simon Atlee and her loss. In her book called “Love Always, Petra: A Story of Courage and the Discovery of Life’s Hidden Gifts,” she tells how she has healed both physically and emotionally from the tsunami tragedy.

Petra Nemcova – “Dancing with the Stars”

After her emotional recovery, Petra Nemcova found love again with British actor Jamie Belman, and with her physical recovery, Nemcova found her way to Season 12 of “Dancing with the Stars” (DWTS) with partner Dmitry Chaplin. Commenting on her physical challenges during DWTS rehearsals, Nemcova pointed out, “My flexibility especially around my pelvic area is very bad.” However, she was to face another more personal challenge when Nemcova learned about the tsunami in Japan while practicing for “Dancing with the Stars.”

According to Reality TV World, Nemcova reportedly almost left “Dancing with the Stars” at that point to help aid the victims in Japan, but in a Green Room Q&A after her appearance on the Piers Morgan show on March 15 Nemcova said, “The reason to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ was for me to shine a light on children who are forgotten after natural disasters,” she said. “Dancing with purpose and now the purpose is even deeper, more relevant.” With that in mind, Nemcova dedicated her DWTS performance to the people of Japan impacted by the tsunami.

Wearing a flirty fuchsia fringed dress, Nemcova and Chaplin Foxtrotted their way to a score of 18 on week 1 of DWTS. Judge Len Goodman told Nemcova her movement was good, but advised her to work on posture especially in the holds. Bruno Tonioli commented, “There were some moments of extreme beauty and sophistication” pointing out that for a tall dancer “with that length of core,” it is difficult to sustain a hold. Carrie Ann Inaba enthused, “You are absolutely stunning. You bring this natural grace which seems to be inside you out through your movements.”

Petra Nemcova – Global Admiration & Respect

However, Nemcova’s Foxtrot accomplished so much more than that. After the Japanese tsunami, the media attention caused by this tsunami survivor dedicating her performance to the people of Japan impacted by a tsunami brought home Nemcova’s message. Who could forget Nemcova’s own tragedy and courage in the face of another tsunami? Overcoming the pain and stiffness in her pelvis as well as the personal grief and memories the Japanese tsunami must have reawakened, Nemcova danced to raise awareness for children around the world. There is little doubt that many viewers will be tuning in to see how long this tsunami survivor can survive “Dancing with the Stars.”

Petra Nemcova is a contradiction, a reminder both of terrible tragedy and courageous survival. She will bring an awareness of children lost and forgotten after a tragedy to each week she survives “Dancing with the Stars” as well as a reminder of what the human spirit can survive after a devastating disaster. It doesn’t matter whether or not she takes home the mirror ball trophy. Petra Nemcova has already earned much more than that. Global admiration and respect? Priceless.

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