True Grit: Bethany Hamilton's Story

At 13, Bethany Hamilton lost her arm to a 14-foot tiger shark. Today she's a world-class surfer -- and the inspiration for a new movie.
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Cheri Hamilton had no doubt her only daughter would grow up to become a professional surfer. At age 4 Bethany was riding waves off the beaches of her home in Kauai. By the time she was 8 she was competing in surfing contests. Taking on gigantic waves was Bethany's specialty, and her parents, both surfers, would encourage her. "We'd tell her, 'You can win this because you're strong. The other kids are going to run away from the big surf,'" recalls Cheri. And sure enough, Bethany, who squealed with delight when she caught a wave, would take home the trophy.

But eight years ago Bethany's dream of surfing greatness nearly came to an end after she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark that tore off her left arm. That headline-making tragedy, and her astonishing path to recovery, is the subject of a new movie, Soul Surfer, starring AnnaSophia Robb (as Bethany) and Helen Hunt (as Cheri).

Today, sitting with her mother in a Santa Monica hotel lounge, Bethany, 21, looks every bit the Hawaiian beach girl, dressed in cutoffs, a Rip Curl jean jacket and bare feet. She smiles and laughs easily but becomes soft-spoken when she recounts the events of that horrible day. Bethany and some friends had gone to Tunnels Beach, one of her favorite surfing spots off Kauai's North Shore. She was lying on her surfboard when she suddenly felt pressure on her arm and then a back-and-forth tugging -- "you know, like how you eat a piece of steak," she says -- before noticing that the turquoise water around her was quickly turning red from her own blood. "I just had a sense of peace throughout it all," says Bethany, whose friends fashioned a tourniquet from a surfboard leash once they paddled her to shore. "I think that was one of the key factors that helped me -- if I had panicked I would have lost more blood."

When Cheri finally saw her daughter at the local hospital, "I was just thankful she was alive," she says. "That was my whole focus -- we'll deal with whatever we have to deal with, but at least she's alive." Bethany's left arm was now a small knob of skin held together with stitches. As the wound healed her focus returned to the water. Not only would she continue to ride waves, but she also decided she would retrain herself. "To me it was like never getting in a car again because you're afraid of having another collision," Bethany says. "Not surfing just didn't work for me." About a month after the attack, around the time her doctor gave her the go-ahead to surf, Bethany stood up on a board as her mother, her father, Tom, and her two older brothers, Noah and Timmy, cheered her on.

In Soul Surfer, it's clear how much Bethany's family played a part in her comeback success. One scene shows her brothers helping her rebuild her strength through vigorous weight training and long runs on the beach. Another has her father (played by Dennis Quaid) installing a handle on the upper end of her board so she could catch her balance. "Our goal was to help her be at the top of her game," says Cheri, who nevertheless had reservations about her daughter's return to competitive surfing. Cheri knew surfing is traditionally a two-armed sport: You need both arms to paddle, grab the sides of the board and raise yourself from a prone position. Instead of cheering her on, she wondered, should they be encouraging her to slow down? "I wasn't sure she should do contests. At one point I told her, 'Just go and support your friends,'" says Cheri. "I didn't want to set her up for failure."

Cheri couldn't bring herself to go with Bethany to her first comeback competition on Hawaii's Big Island two months after the attack ("too painful," she says, wincing). But when her daughter returned home with fifth place, she shifted gears. "If you can get fifth place, you can get fourth place," Cheri told her. Six months later Bethany won her division in a bigger contest in Waikiki. At the time of her attack she was considered an amateur with signs of promise. Today she is ranked among the top 25 female surfers in the world.

There have been moments when Bethany and her mother are haunted by that October 2003 morning. Out on the water, Bethany might think, Was that a shark in the distance? Will it happen again? But "I hardly ever get worried," she says, and she has ways of calming herself down. "I'll pray," she says, "or I'll sing a song, like, 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' or 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'"

Cheri struggles with post-traumatic stress. "If I'm sleeping and I hear a noise, I'll wake up and feel adrenaline running through my body," she says. "It's diminished over the years, but it still happens."

Mostly, though, Bethany uses her story to inspire people. She gives motivational talks and, through her nonprofit foundation, Friends of Bethany, she works with other amputees and shark-attack survivors. "I met one boy in Australia who was born with no limbs and I took him surfing with me," she says. "We all have different challenges, but his attitude was so positive it was infectious." The rest of the time she's traveling around the world, catching waves -- and trophies -- on the competitive surfing circuit. "People ask me if I'm excited about the movie," says Bethany, who was on the Oahu set with her family and did most of the one-armed surfing scenes in the film. "I am. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I'm way more excited about surfing. Surfing is what I do."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2011.

 

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