Bethany Hamilton, Soul Surfer
At the age of 13, Bethany Hamilton was surfing near her home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai when a 14-foot shark took a bite out of her board, severed her left arm, and seemingly shattered her dream of becoming a professional surfer. But only one month later she was back in the water, and within a year she was actually competing again.
Today, the 5-foot-11-inch blonde surfs in professional competitions around the world, telling her story and giving others hope along the way. Her life is the subject of the book “Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board,” which was made into the feature film “Soul Surfer” in 2011.
When did you first dream of becoming a professional surfer?
I’ve loved surfing since I was 4 or 5 years old, but I started dreaming of being a professional around 8 when I could paddle out and do it on my own. I would see all of the older surfer girls and surfer guys in the local community who had professional careers, and I thought, “Wow, I want to do that when I get older.”
What inspired you to follow that dream?
I grew up going to the beach every day. Both of my parents moved from the mainland to surf in Hawaii. They taught all us kids how to surf, and we just loved being in the ocean and riding waves.
How did you make your dream happen?
Honestly, to advance in a sport, you have to invest time in it. ... I was on the little Hanalei Surf Company Surf Team. It was just me and my friend Alana Blanchard and a bunch of boys, so we had that push to try to compete against them. I was doing well and competed in the National Scholastic Surfing Association Championships, which at the time was the biggest amateur event in the U.S. I finished second in that at the age of 13. I was an underdog, younger than all the other girls. I have the natural ability and the drive, but [being an underdog] really motivated me.
Then, I lost the arm. I continued competing less than a year later and ended up winning the nationals two summers later. That was my incentive to keep driving, even with one arm. I turned professional when I was 18.
Were you ever ready to throw in the towel or change paths?
Well, I lost my arm. That was a big setback! But for me, it goes beyond my dreams and goals and competitive drive. It came down to my passion. I was more afraid of losing surfing than losing my arm. ... Before I left the hospital, I had decided I wanted to try surfing. ... I got to talk to a local friend named Mike Coots. He had lost his leg to a shark and learned how to surf with just one leg. That gave me a hope that maybe I could do this with just one arm.
Learning how to surf with one arm was one of the most physically challenging things I have ever had to do. ... It was actually a day before my doctor said I could get in the water, and I was down at the beach watching all my friends on their surf teams. I was like, “Oh my gosh, the waves are so perfect. This is so frustrating!” So I called my family and said, “Bring my long board down. I want to go surfing now . ...”
I paddled out, and I struggled to get up on my first couple of waves. I was really feeling discouraged. My dad said, “Let me help you.” I said, “No, I’ve got to do it on my own.” But he gave me a tip. He told me to put my hand in the middle of the board, because normally when you stand up you put both hands on the rails and pop up. ... Once we figured that out, I got up on my next wave, and I rode it all the way to the beach. It felt like one of the best waves of my life. ... My friends were cheering, and my parents were crying, and I was just ecstatic.
What does “success” mean to you?
Success to me is when you are satisfied with who you are and what you have done with your career or your life, whatever it may be. It’s really just as simple as that.
Who have you looked to for inspiration?
Both of my parents have just been really supportive of my surfing and whatever I’m doing. ... They’re not forceful or really pushy, but they always encourage me to work hard at what I am doing and find things that I am passionate about. ... My brother Timmy always challenges me to charge harder and surf bigger and gnarlier waves, which I like. And my brother Noah helps me make good business decisions. Sarah Hill was my youth minister at church and was my mentor growing up. Everyone needs someone they can talk to, and she’s still my good friend today. I have an amazing group of friends.
Are you living the dream, chasing the dream or still dreaming the dream?
Living and chasing. I have this amazing opportunity to travel the world competing as a pro surfer. It’s more than just contests — it’s surfing around the world. I’ve achieved a high level of surfing, but I am still chasing a higher level. ... Beyond surfing, I have done more than I ever dreamed I would with my book and movie and documentary. It’s cool to see that by losing my arm I’ve reached more people than I ever would have with two arms.
How do you inspire others to pursue their dreams?
First off, I inspire others by pursuing my own dreams, because if I was not doing that, then they’d know nothing that I said was true. ... They can draw from my strength and determination. I just encourage people to find what they are passionate about. If there is no passion behind what you are doing, you are going to lose your motivation. There is something so beautiful when people follow their true passion. You work hardest at what you enjoy.
Is there a dream that you’ve had to give up on?
Before I lost my arm, I really loved to play music. I played the guitar and ukulele. I’ve heard of one-armed people playing and no-arm people playing, and it kind of frustrates me that I haven’t even tried.
What does the American dream mean to you?
To me, it means just have my own amazing adventurous wave, not necessarily in the ocean but whatever my wave may be.