Bethany Hamilton never saw it coming. The shark literally came out of the blue.
“The water was crystal-clear and calm,” she writes in her book, Soul Surfer. “The waves were small and inconsistent, and I was just kind of rolling with them, relaxing on my board with my right hand on the nose of the board and my left arm dangling in the cool water. I remember thinking, ‘I hope the surf picks up soon…’ when suddenly there was a flash of gray.”
In a moment, the 13-year-old’s life would be changed forever as a 15-foot tiger shark lunged onto the board. She felt pressure, some tugs. The water turned crimson and the girl started paddling toward the beach.
“My left arm was gone almost to the armpit along with a huge crescent-shaped chunk of my red, white and blue surfboard.”
She made it to the hospital, survived a tremendous loss of blood, and her story went around the world, the way shark attack stories always do. But the difference in Bethany Hamilton’s story is what happened later, when she stopped being the shark attack survivor and started being the inspiration.
Today, the 21-year-old surfer is back in the water and back in the news with a April 2011 major motion picture based on her life, entitled Soul Surfer. (In this clip, Hamilton speaks on the set of Soul Surfer and explains what its like to see her life on the big screen.) She is busy with surfing competitions, media interviews, charity work and personal appearances. Hamilton's touching interaction with 8-year-old Kendall Curnuck, whose Make-A-Wish request was to ride the waves with the "Soul Surfer," was the subject of a recent ESPN SportsCenter feature. She is tall, blonde, and does not try to hide the small stump that was once her left arm.
"Whatever your situation might be, set your mind to whatever you want to do and put a good attitude in it and I believe that you can succeed."
Although Hamilton glosses over that day off the beach near her home in Kauai, Hawaii, she admits the whole thing became very real the next day, in the hospital when she looked down “to see what was left.”
“My first thoughts were just looking down and seeing that I only had one arm. It was a weird feeling.”
Hamilton’s reaction to what would have been a devastating game-changer for most 13-year-olds is a testament to how her life has played out since then. She did not spiral into self-pity or depression or a lifelong career as a victim. Instead, she connected with the values instilled by her parents.
“I focused on the things that were really important to me at that time—my faith in Jesus Christ, my family, being grateful that I was still alive and that I could survive such a traumatic event.”
Not that it was easy. Hamilton needed help with everything—her hair, getting dressed, doing things around the kitchen. She doesn’t wear shoes in Hawaii, so, thankfully, that wasn’t an issue. “The main thing I really couldn’t do—I could probably figure out how to do it—was music,” she says now. “Guitar and ukulele were a big part of my life.”
Most troubling for the shy teen was dealing with reactions of others. “Learning how to deal with people and their reactions to my life is one of the most challenging things… people staring at me, people asking rude questions, dealing with media, stuff like that.”
By far, however, the biggest and most important challenge for Hamilton was her return to surfing. Born to Tom and Cheri Hamilton, California surf nuts who had moved to Hawaii because of the waves, Bethany practically grew up in the ocean surfing with her brothers. There “was saltwater in the bloodline,” she says.
Hamilton describes surfing as “an addiction, a pleasure rush indescribable to anyone who has not experienced it. And when it grabs you, it won’t let go.” She began surfing when she was 5; by the time she was in grade school, she was entering competitions—and winning. By the time she was 13, competitive surfing had already become a way of life and her family was solidly behind her.
Although the prospect of returning to the water after the shark attack was daunting, Hamilton says not going back would have been far scarier.
“Surfing for me is more than my lifestyle; it’s my passion, my love and it’s a part of me,” she says. “Shark attacks are very rare, and that was not really my issue going back in the water. It was more whether or not I would be able to surf again. My love of surfing just pushed me to go try again.”
Three weeks after her accident, Hamilton was back in the ocean, surfing again, this time with a modified board that made it easier to paddle with one arm. Before long, she began surfing competitively again, and now travels around the world for surfing competitions and personal appearances. In July 2004, Hamilton won the ESPY Award for “Best Comeback Athlete.” She was presented with a special courage award at the 2004 Teen Choice Awards. In 2005, Hamilton won the NSSA National Championships and in 2008, she began competing full time in the Association of Surfing Professionals World Qualifying Series (WQS).
Hamilton doesn’t necessarily see herself as brave. When asked how she was able to overcome her obstacles, she almost shrugs it off. “I guess I just like to challenge myself and push myself harder to do things that I don’t think I can, to do things that other people do not think I can. It pushes me. I push my own personal limits.”
And then there is her abiding faith, which has provided strength. “If it weren’t for that, I would not have the ability to move on and press forward and do things that people doubted I could ever do. Even do the things I doubted I could do.”
There are still everyday frustrations, but these disappear when Hamilton slips into the ocean. The most enduring issue for her is the very thing she uses to promote her inspirational message: her fame.
“It’s hard to go anywhere and not worry about people recognizing me. Your privacy is pretty much diminished. But I just have to believe that I am going to help people through this. The best thing about fame is that I can share my story and bring hope to other people.”
And her advice is simple for those people who have suffered a setback: Get moving again.
“Whatever your situation might be, set your mind to whatever you want to do and put a good attitude in it and I believe that you can succeed. You are not going to get anywhere just sitting on your butt and moping around.”
And that is at the core of what Bethany Hamilton wants people to see—not a girl who lost an arm or who survived a shark attack, but one who overcame fear and disability to excel in the thing she loves most: surfing.
“I love surfing very much,” she says. “What I have accomplished through surfing gives me motivation throughout the day. It br ings me joy. It helps me appreciate everything I have been given.”