Bethany Hamilton was living the dream in Hawaii as a promising surfer with loads of talent. Then, one fateful day in 2003, a terrifying incident changed everything.
During an early morning surf session, a shark attack took her arm and nearly her life. Rather than shy away from the ocean, the 13-year-old girl faced her fears and inspired kids, adults, athletes and people all around the world.
This is the story of a soul surfer who never stopped pursuing her passion.
Growing up in Hawaii, Bethany Hamilton was living out a childhood that most kids across the country and around the world could only dream of. Being raised out on the islands is unlike anything kids can imagine. Even those who are raised in sunny Southern California don’t have the disconnect like these island residents.
While most kids grow up playing with friends on the jungle gym, Hawaii has islands full of natural playgrounds. Like so many others living there, Bethany’s favorite “playground” to visit with her friends is by the beach in the water, and surfing is always the activity of choice. However, surfing would change her life forever in the most shocking ways imaginable…
Like a true soul surfer, riding has always been far more than just a passion or pastime for Bethany, it’s a way of life. That certainly worked out, considering she was pretty much born into it. Her parents, Tom and Cheri, were both lifelong surfers along with her older brothers, Noah and Tim.
It’s a staple that’s helped bring the Hamiltons together.
With an array of great locations for big waves on her home island of Kauai and an entire family serving as mentors, it didn’t take long for surfing to become second nature for Bethany and it showed from an early age.
By no means are the Hamiltons unique in their surfing obsession; it won’t take much asking around to find that plenty of others in the area are every bit as obsessed. That was especially true of Bethany’s best friend, Alana Blanchard, who was always down to hit the waves at the drop of a hat.
Just as fast as Bethany and Alana grew attached to their boards, they formed a bond with each other too. While this passion brought them together, living on such a small island also brought their families close, bringing Bethany and Alana so close that the two families developed their own family bond.
As their friendship blossomed, so too did their competitive spirit. Bethany and Alana were both obviously gifted and a determined work ethic had them constantly working to improve. That competitive drive didn’t just stick to a friendly rivalry. These two were looking for fun in competitive outlets that could present legit challenges.
In fact, Alana eventually developed into such an incredible talent that she eventually gained enough notoriety to turn pro, winning major competitions all around Hawaii and even going on to compete all around the world.
It really did seem like it was fate that set this perfect pair up together.
When Bethany wasn’t out riding waves, she was most likely still shredding on land. Always on a board, riding consumed her life in the best of ways. By 1998, at only eight years old, Bethany dove into the world of competitive surfing, and she certainly kicked it off with a bang.
In her first competition, the Rell Sunn Menehune Surfing Championships, Bethany showed exactly what she was capable of by dominating the competition and taking first place.
The following year, she followed her first Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest victory with wins in both the shortboard and longboard divisions.
But that was only the start…
The good times kept on coming, as 1999 also marked Bethany’s first place finishes were accompanied by her first sponsors! That’s right, the nine-year-old surfer was already repping sponsors. Even with her early success, little did Carroll Surfboards and Rip Curl know what a big name talent they had landed.
Bethany always had plenty of time to hone her craft, as her parents decided they wanted to homeschool their daughter.
From hitting the books hard for some old-fashioned schooling to hitting the waves harder for some surf instructions, the Hamiltons sure did get being a rad mom and dad right.
Bethany’s rapid ascent to relevance continued on a grander stage. At the same time, sponsors continued to roll in, as she kept climbing the ladder of the world’s top ranked amateur surfers. She finally won big, taking first place in the 2002 National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Open Women’s Division.
In July 2003, she followed up that unbelievable first-place finish with yet another impressive outing, coming in second this time.
It seemed like all the right pieces were falling in place with incredible top finishes in competition when, just like that, her entire life changed in the blink of an eye.
On October 31, just a few months after coming in second at the NSSA National Championships, Bethany and Alana were out at Tunnels Beach for an early morning surf session with Alana’s dad, Holt, and brother, Byron. Bethany’s dad wasn’t present, because he was at scheduled for a knee operation at the nearby Wilcox Memorial Hospital.
Tom was stuck inside the hospital likely wishing he could be lounging out beachside in his daughter’s company, but little did he know he would end up seeing his daughter far sooner than he could have imagined.
He would see her far sooner than he’d have wanted too…
Bethany was lying belly down on her surfboard, left arm casually dangling off into the water when her tranquil morning came to a screaming halt. Out of nowhere came an intense pressure that pulled at her arm. Oddly, despite the jarring sensation that came over her, there was no feeling of pain.
Initially painless, Bethany confusedly looked around to figure out what had just happened only to see that the surrounding water had turned a deep red.
Alana – out on the water with her friend the whole time – saw the horrifying sight and, after processing what had just happened, screamed for her father’s help.
Holt heard his daughter’s screams and immediately leapt into action. After scanning the ocean horizon and realizing what the cries, running to help his daughter’s profusely bleeding friend. Alana did her best to keep Bethany calm while Holt brought her to shore, fashioning a makeshift tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
Fast as Holt had acted, it still didn’t look good.
By the time Bethany reached the hospital she had lost 60 percent of her blood.
Her father, who should have been on the operating table had a sudden delay in his surgery, learning that the emergency was for his daughter.
When the medics rushed Bethany into the hospital, the doctor was stunned at his first sight of where the arm was missing just below the shoulder. The arm had been taken off in such a clean fashion that the surgeon actually thought someone had already performed the amputation without him knowing.
Only a shark bite could produce that type of raw power.
Thankfully, even though the odds looked to be heavily stacked against her, Bethany proved too tough for this horrible attack to be the end.
Relieved and grateful as Tom was that his daughter had survived, he wanted to find the shark responsible.
Family member and fisherman Bill Hamilton got a call from Bethany’s father, detailing the terrifying attack and pleading that he scour the island to seek out the shark responsible. Two weeks after the accident, they found and captured the shark responsible. The culprit was every bit as terrifying as Bethany’s run-in suggested.
It was a nearly 14-foot tiger shark, a predator so dangerous that attacks by the species are second only to the Great White in number of human fatalities.
Despite the horrifying incident, Bethany was looking to do one thing and one thing only: Get back on her board and into the water.
One thing was crystal clear from the start, Bethany Hamilton was never a victim, not the way she carried herself, at least. Was she a survivor? Without a doubt. But a victim? Not by a long shot. It is this point of view she exhibited that makes her story so incredible.
Even though she was only 13 years old at the time of the attack, her approach to returning to “normalcy” displayed a mental fortitude that had clearly been instilled at a young age.
Already mature well beyond her years, Bethany credits “faith” for getting her through such a traumatic experience.
Brutal as the tiger shark attack was, returning to a healthy state of mind may have been even more challenging than the actual process of healing from the bite. “I told myself, ‘You can do it. You can paddle and get up with one arm.’ But quickly another voice yelled back, “Forget it. You’re going to fail,'” Bethany recalled.
With a healthy dose of courage and confidence, Bethany turned from recovery to rehabilitation, so that she could work her way back to getting into the water.
Now that she was physically capable of pushing forward, she could emotionally forge on. Her religious upbringing proved a powerful motivator, as her faith in herself quickly became undeniable.
“I had about three to four weeks of healing and recovery before I could give surfing with one arm a try. The doctor ordered me to stay out of the water until everything held up. I set a deadline for myself: Thanksgiving Day.” Bethany’s goal was a bold one, but that’s exactly what such courageous requires.
Three to four weeks sounds so soon for such a severe injury it would seem like that Bethany was setting herself up for a worse letdown than simply disappointment.
Far from it, though. On November 26, one day before Thanksgiving, Bethany was back on her board and in the water.
The stunning rate with which a 13-year-old girl was able to overcome so much – mind, body and soul – blew the media out of the water. The incredible comeback story took the news by storm. Who is this girl wonder? How did she manage to do it? The nation needed to know.
Before Bethany knew it, she was swarmed by the media. Everyone wanted to get some insight on such an inspirational story. After all, there were so few shark attack survivors around the world as it is let alone a 13-year-old who was ready to get right back in the water and ride.
Thanks to her father’s ingenuity, Bethany was able to return to the sport she loved so much. By crafting a special handle to go on her surfboards that would help her keep a steady grip, Bethany now had an avenue to overcome one of the biggest hurdles of surfing with one arm.
That big problem was duck diving, something that is critical for surfers looking for real waves.
Duck diving is when a surfer plunges under an oncoming wave while paddling out to avoid being swept back towards the shore. Thanks to dad’s specially made grip, now she could do just that.
Returning to the tube was a great start, but it only marked the beginning of her comeback. Once she found her footing, Bethany set her sights on the next step of her journey: Get back to competitive surfing. January 10, 2004 marked a surreal moment in competitive surfing history.
After working her way up from a larger longboard, which is easier to ride, back down to a shortboard, it was time to compete again.
At the NSSA regional qualifying event, Bethany Hamilton showed that she was officially back, as she defied the odds to place fifth in the competition.
Her comeback could only be summed up on way: Stunning. To capture the astounding feat, Bethany released a book, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, through MTV, detailing her point of view through her sudden change in fate and remarkable comeback.
Her success story (literally and figuratively) ended up being such an inspiration to so many – young and old alike – that she was invited to the 2004 ESPY Awards where she was amongst the nominees for the Comeback Athlete of the Year.
As if she wasn’t already taking over the news, this only further propelled her into the limelight.
Bethany stole the show at the ESPYs, as she ended up winning the Best Comeback Athlete award while delivering a heartwarming and inspirational message in the process. The soul surfer’s story of survival was so inspirational that she was later invited to the Nickelodeon Teen Choice Awards that same year.
Once again, Bethany’s bravery swept the crowd off its feet, as she was walked away from the Teen Choice Awards with a special Courage Award.
“Every time I ask [why me?] I think of all the good that has come out of it through my faith,” she said, reflecting on the moment.
Everything looked like it was really coming together in 2004, but her comeback turned out to be more rapid than anyone could have imagined. Incredible as her return had been over the last year, she really blew expectations out of the water when she returned to the NSSA National Competition.
At 15, Bethany stepped it up to another level in SoCal, ripping her way to a first-place finish in the Open Women’s division of the 2005 NSSA National Championships.
If anyone still believed that Bethany’s return was little more than a gimmick, this officially washed those doubts away.
Now that Bethany had proved to the world that she not only believed she could compete with the best, but literally proved she was the best, the only logical next step was to keep on seeing how far she could push her limits. That intense level of focus paid off, literally.
In 2007, Bethany could tack on a new title to “soul surfer.” After years of exhibiting her prowess carving up waves, her time finally came to make the leap to the next level.
Bethany Hamilton turned pro.
Staying true to her motivated disposition, simply making the pro circuit merely opened a new door to test herself.
Bethany had gained such an enormous, incredible group of supporters from all walks of life around the world that Hollywood had heard her story and wanted to share it with the world on the big screen. In 2011, Soul Surfer hit the theaters and ended up being a smash hit.
Hamilton’s biopic turned out to be every bit as successful as her autobiography. She even made multiple appearances (as herself, of course) in the film, taking the reins in all of the surfing scenes.
Even after so much success, there was still another fulfillment Bethany was looking for in life.
Once again, Bethany’s life changed drastically (though for a very different reason this time) in 2012 when she met youth minister Adam Dirks. The two attended church together and, after a little convincing from a friend, Adam eventually worked up the courage to call and ask her out on a date.
The chemistry was as instant as it was undeniable. They were perfect for one another. It isn’t just any couple who will share a first date jumping off 40-foot cliffs together, after all!
After going out on a few more dates, they knew it was a match made in heaven.
There’s no embellishment when saying that this perfect pair fell in love fast and hard. When it feels right, it just feels right. That was clearly both Bethany and Adam’s sentiment, because in April 2013 they announced their engagement.
Shortly after, in August of the same year, the couple made it official and stated their vows.
Already living in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Bethany and Adam held the ceremony on the north shore of Kauai in front of some 300 close friends and family members.
The newlyweds went ahead and put their marriage to the test right off the bat, and the whole thing was televised for the world to see. That challenge came in the form of a wildly popular reality show, as they competed on the 25th installment of The Amazing Race.
Given her long history of competitive performances, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that team Soul Surfers absolutely crushed it. They made it all the way to the 12th and final round of the 2014 contest and ended up finishing in third place overall!
Year after year, Bethany has continually experienced new “firsts” since suffering the fateful shark bite, but this was something none of those prior experiences could prepare her (or her husband) for what came in 2015. On June 1, Bethany and Adam welcomed a new addition to the family with their first son, Tobias.
Bethany excitedly shared the story of naming Tobias after his great grandfather, posting on her Instagram the name’s meaning translates to “The goodness of God.”
The following year, Bethany was back in the news, although this time it was for doing what she does best again, carving up some waves.
Even though she hadn’t been competing full-time due to a constantly packed schedule, Bethany once again blew away spectators and her competition in a surreal surf contest. Through a wildcard berth, Bethany entered the Fiji Women’s Pro 2016. It was a rough start, finishing last in the first round. A second chance heat pit her against the world’s No. 1 ranked surfer, Tyler Wright, who’d won three of the last four events.
Bethany lit up the tube, pulling off an amazing upset that eventually carried her all the way to a third-place finish in what was truly a surreal moment for everyone involved.
Repeated magnificent moments like this are exactly the reason why, in 2017, Bethany earned the ultimate honor of being inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame.
As time continues to passes on, Bethany’s trophy case of accomplishments seems to keep on growing with it. Although it wasn’t another gold medal, another big win came in March 2018 when her family once again grew a little bit bigger, as she and Adam welcomed their second son, Wesley, into the world.
Since motherhood clearly hasn’t stopped her from shredding, why would it stop her from her other occupations that have brought so much joy and inspiration to so many?
The easy answer is that it hasn’t! (Seriously though, just thinking about how much she has on her plate at all times is exhausting!)
Since 2018 marks the introduction of Bethany’s second boy to the world, it’s only fitting that she decided to release two new books the same year. Be Unstoppable: The Art of Never Giving Up showcases her passions and perseverance with breathtaking photos while Unstoppable Me is a children’s book about a little lion who learns to never give up through her love of surfing.
If releasing two books shortly after welcoming her second child is any indication of things to come, Bethany is in for unimaginable worlds of success in the very near future.
After a harrowing shark attack that nearly took her life, Bethany Hamilton stared in the eyes of adversity and proved that there is no hurdle too high to climb (or wave too big) with enough perseverance.