If you’ve ever felt incapable of doing something, here’s a story that will change your mind in an instant. Bethany Hamilton, a sun-kissed girl from Kauai, paddled out one morning to catch some waves. As she lay on her surfboard nonchalantly swaying one arm underwater, she felt a tight pull.
Next thing she knew, she was surrounded by a pool of blood. A 14-foot-long tiger shark ripped her arm off and left her fading in and out of consciousness. Fast forward a month later, and this pro surfer jumped right back in the ocean, swerving through massive waves with just one arm.
Still, feel too weak to tackle your problems? We doubt it. Let’s take a look at how this unstoppable surfer made history.
Hawaiian Bethany Hamilton was born in the green, picturesque town of Lihue on February 8, 1990. She grew up alongside older brothers Noah and Timothy, who introduced her to surfing at a very young age. Bethany was a natural at handling the waves. She signed up for competitions at only eight years old and gained her first sponsorship by the age of nine.
She became a Hanalei Surf Co. team member and won both her age group and the open division of Hawaii’s Local Motion/Ezekiel Surf Intro Summer event in 2003. It was clear to everyone that this little surfer was destined for greatness.
On the morning of October 31, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany went out for a morning surf along Tunnels Beach, Kauai, with family friend Holt Blanchard, his daughter, Alana, and his son Byron. The sun was shining, and the waves looked great. There was no reason for Bethany to believe her ordinary wave session would turn out to be a face-to-face encounter with deadly jaws.
Bethany said the attack came out of nowhere: “I was laying on my board sideways. And then … the shark came up and grabbed hold of my arm. It was pulling me back and forth. Just like, you know how you eat a piece of steak? … It was kind of like that. And then it let go. Then I looked down at the water, and it was really red, from all the blood in the water.”
Blanchard was in shock and thought Bethany was kidding when she cried to him, “I got attacked by a shark!” He never saw any splashing or heard any screams so that he couldn’t wrap his head around the tragic event. But once he saw that her arm was gone, he came to his senses and acted as quickly as he possibly could.
The only thing on his mind was to get Bethany to shore before she bled to death, so he used his surfboard leash to create a tourniquet and quickly led her out of the water. Incredibly, Bethany managed to stay calm through the whole ordeal. She explained that “I think I figured out that if I panicked, then things wouldn’t go as good as if I was calm.”
Bethany said she felt numb on her way to the hospital. Once she arrived, she had lost over 60% of her blood and was in hypovolemic shock. Her father was scheduled to have knee surgery that morning, so he was already there, but she took his place in the operating room.
Bethany’s doctor broke the news to her dad. He recalled, “I was crying because I knew it was Bethany. I knew how it would affect Tom, and it’s the hardest news you can share with another parent.” In response, her dad said he had nothing left to do but pray to God for his daughter’s survival.
Everyone around Bethany fell apart when they heard the news. But the damaged surfer? She was just thankful to be alive. And even though her parents struggled to stay positive, she did her best to lift up the family’s spirits.
She didn’t let herself wallow in self-pity: “I was just thankful to be alive, and that propelled me to have a more positive mindset. My dad was really angry that I lost my arm, but he got over that eventually and saw that I was still just eager for life.”
When news of the shark attack spread on the island, a family of fishermen came forward with photos of a 14-foot-long tiger shark they had caught and killed about one mile from the attack site. It had surfboard debris in its mouth, and when investigators compared the size of its jaw to Hamilton’s broken surfboard, it matched.
In late 2004, police officially confirmed that it was the same shark who had snatched Bethany’s arm. While islanders were happy with the catch, it’s important to note they don’t believe in carelessly harming sharks. One resident explained, “This is a magnificent creature … and I don’t think it’s necessary to kill all of the sharks in the islands by any means. But the way this one was patrolling and the repetition of it … the potential for harm by this one was real strong.”
Just weeks after the attack, Bethany was right back in the water. Her dad was so impressed by his daughter’s unshakeable spirit that he customized a special handle for her surfboard to help her ride the waves.
The first few months were a learning process during which she rediscovered her body’s boundaries and capabilities. She relied more on her leg strength and had to learn new techniques to keep her balance. Her custom-made board made all the difference and allowed her to explore the waters once again.
Bethany enrolled in her first competition on January 10, 2004, only 26 days after the attack. She placed fifth in the Open Women’s division and won the ESPY Award for Best Comeback Athlete that same year. With no intention of stopping, she signed up again in 2005 to the NSSA National Championships, where she won first place.
Many were shocked by her quick return to the water. But according to Bethany, her fear of losing surfing was greater than her fear of sharks. By 2007, she went pro and competed in numerous World Tour events, placing second in the 2009 World Junior Championship. Amazed? So are we.
After reading about her incredible comeback, it’s easy to assume Bethany feels right at home in competitions. But Bethany once mentioned she found it hard when there was too much testosterone in the water. She stressed the importance of gender equality and admitted that we’re not there yet.
After one of her competitions, Bethany explained, “It’s been such a struggle to catch waves in the line-up with all the guys. It’s sad because it also forces the women to put up this [makes an angry face] just to get a wave.”
Bethany’s shark-bitten surfboard and the bathing suit she wore during the attack are both on display at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, California. It’s shocking but equally fascinating to see the massive bite on her board.
But her swimsuit is what’s really interesting here! Her two-piece suit’s silhouetted figure is friend and neighbor, surfer Bill Hamilton, who later helped catch the shark believed to be involved in the attack.
The star surfer has appeared on numerous shows, including Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and The Tonight Show. But her most memorable TV appearance was in The Amazing Race (2014), when she and her husband, Adam Dirks, competed as a team on the 25th season and finished in third place.
Bethany and her “Honey Buns” were fierce competitors and almost won the race. But they were grateful and satisfied for coming in third. Bethany claimed she gave it her all, “I’ve always been competitive with myself, and I’ve always tried to be the best I can!”
Bethany is always up for public speaking and sees it as a platform to share her incredible optimism and courage. She’s spoken at universities, conferences, and charity events. In 2013, she shared her testimony in the Liberty University Convocation, and when she was done, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the room.
She told the students, “As I grew up with one arm and relearned how to surf, God taught me that He could take the hard times that I went through and turn them into something beautiful. I think that He can do that for each and every one of you. He can take what you have been through and use it for good if you are willing to share what He has done for you.”
Bethany described her 2007 documentary film, Heart of a Soul Surfer, as a “faith-based documentary” that addresses her devotion to Christianity. Director Mike Doyle explained that “The main focus (of the film) is the shark attack and how God has used that as a platform to give her an opportunity to share the gospel.”
Bethany’s talk about God and faith makes a lot of sense. When something as tragic as losing an arm happens to you, you’re bound to ask the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen in our lives?” Bethany’s inspirational film tries to answer that.
The star surfer has been on some wacky shows, but this has to be the funniest. In 2009, she was a contestant on the hit show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? She proudly stated, “My name is Bethany Hamilton. I can surf, but I am not smarter than a fifth-grader.”
She won $25,000. Not the largest prize on the show, but still pretty rewarding. Bethany also appeared on an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. She doesn’t know much about home improvement, but she knows about “rebuilding, restoration and overcoming obstacles.”
A year after the accident in 2004, with her mom’s help, Bethany published her autobiography named Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on Board. The book begins with that fateful Halloween morning and discusses the events leading up to the attack.
The book received great reviews and became a New York Times bestseller. With ratings between 4.5 and 5, it’s clear Bethany’s story touched the hearts of many, regardless of their interest in competitive surfing.
In 2011, Bethany’s book graced the silver screen and became a commercial success, earning $47.1 million on an $18 million budget. Bethany and her mom considered many actresses for the lead role but eventually decided Anna Sophia Robb was the perfect fit.
Robb wasn’t familiar with the story before reading the script. Still, she was enthralled by it from the very first page, “My agent sent me the script, and I thought it was an incredible role and was fascinated by all the challenges it offered to play Bethany.”
Anna Sophia Robb did the acting, but Bethany did the surfing. She said she performed all the one-armed surfing stunts herself, so the second half of the movie is the real Bethany Hamilton in action.
Bethany is super proud of how the movie came out, “We went to Tahiti and filmed some really good surf down there. The surfing — it’s probably one of the best surf Hollywood films ever made, in my opinion.”
Initially, the attack scene in the film was supposed to be a lot more dramatic with screaming and crying and all that Hollywood jazz. But Bethany didn’t let producers get their way. She told them to tone it down a bit because, in the actual incident, everyone was calm.
How a person can remain calm and collected after getting their arm ripped off is mind-blowing, but I guess adrenaline works like magic in extreme cases like this. Bethany mentioned the attack didn’t hurt at all. Sensations only kicked in a couple of hours later.
Bethany has said time and again that she surfs for Jesus. She wants to be a light in this world who spreads his teachings, and she uses the waves as the medium to do so. But in the film Soul Surfer, elements of her strong faith are rarely shown.
Producers wanted to reduce the Christian elements in the film to appeal to non-Christian audiences. So, they digitally edited out little details like the “Holy Bible” written on one of the books. But Bethany’s family strongly objected, and the edited portions were restored.
Seven years after Soul Surfer came out, Bethany came out with another documentary, Unstoppable. This time, the film turned the lens away from the shark attack and focused more on her adult life, specifically motherhood and her profound love of surfing.
Bethany said she felt like “In the last 15 years, people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re the shark girl,’ or ‘Oh, you’re that girl that lost her arm.’” So, she released the film to highlight that, “Hey, it’s more than just this one-hour incident in my life.”
Bethany met her husband, Adam Dirks, through mutual friends. A year after they met, they got engaged and had a beautiful Hawaiian wedding a few months later, on August 18, 2013. Their dreamy island ceremony took place at a secluded 130-acre estate on Kauai’s north shore, near the town where Bethany grew up.
The soul surfer gushed, “Our wedding was beautiful. I’m now married to the love of my life. There are no words to fully describe what went on in my heart on our wedding day. I was, and I am full of joy, thankfulness, and excitement to share life with my husband, Adam.”
The island couple have two golden-haired little boys running around their Hawaiian estate. The eldest son, Tobias, was born in 2015 and was named after his great-grandpa. His name translates into “God is good.” Her second son, Wesley, was born three years later in 2018.
But the Dirks released some exciting news in 2020 when they announced they were pregnant with their third child. Bethany posted a video that shows her with her two sons playing on the beach. She captioned the video, “We are grateful, and the lil one on the way has sure lightened up this year for us!”
With two avid surfers as parents, Tobias and Wesley have the sport in their blood. Bethany takes her boys out to surf at least one wave every time they visit the beach. She says, “I just want them to appreciate the ocean and wave riding and hopefully be able to share that with them because I want to be surfing until I’m old.”
Bethany uploaded an adorable video on her Instagram that shows Tobias sticking his tongue out and crouching down to balance himself on the board. She captioned it with, “My little man is learning to shred!”
Bethany was homeschooled as a kid, and she plans on raising her children the same way. Her hectic lifestyle requires the family of four to travel together for all her competitions and appearances, so she sees no reason to enroll them in school.
Tobias and Wesley have been alive for only a couple of years, but they have already visited some of the most beautiful, exotic areas on the planet. Tobias celebrated his first two birthdays in Fiji! I guess that’s the life you live when your mom is a superhero surfer.
Hamilton started her own foundation called Friends of Bethany, which supports traumatic amputees and encourages them to overcome their difficulties through devotion and faith. The soul surfer knows how much God has helped her find the strength to pull through and wants to share those feelings with others in need.
She offers motivational courses and guided programs that take her subscribers through intense sessions. Each centered on a different empowerment method. “I cherish the role that I have in being able to inspire people,” Hamilton says. “I just wanted to create a place where I could get deeper with people and really encourage them in their journey.”
The technique she uses to stabilize herself properly is to duck dive with one hand placed in the board’s center to make it sink deeper than usual. It’s a constant learning process, and the surfer admits she always discovers new methods to improve her performance.
While most people would react negatively to an accident, Bethany is grateful it happened to her at such a young age, allowing her plenty of time to grow into her adult body and learn to surf accordingly. And even though it takes her longer to paddle out, she still manages to kick everyone’s butt.
Bethany is proud of her achievements but knows deep down that she would have probably been more successful in competitive surfing if she hadn’t suffered the accident. “I do think I would have veered toward a professional surfing career and probably had a lot of success competitively—probably a lot more success than I have.”
But upon further reflection, she concluded, “I also don’t know if I would have a kid now or have my husband. I believe God’s plan is better than our own, and that’s just part of this life. In a lot of ways, I have lived my life how I wanted it to be, just a little differently.”
Bethany experienced something so traumatic that it’s astonishing how quickly she managed to pick herself up. While most people would curl up in a ball of self-pity, Bethany confessed she was overcome by complete serenity, “I had a sense of peace after the attack. Faith helped me through.”
Today, as a 30-year-old adult, Bethany is pretty amazed by her younger self and describes her strength at the time stemming out of “childlike faith.” It looks like we adults have a lot to learn from the innocence and optimism of kids.
Bethany announced she wants to qualify for the WSL Women’s Championship Tour in 2021. She excitedly explained, “I feel I’m surfing better than ever. It’s a special time in women’s surfing with equal prize money and a lot of talent.”
As a young kid, Bethany devoted all of her time to riding the waves but admits she dabbled a bit in her 20s. She said, “Now, with two kids and a husband on my side, it will be interesting to be 30 years old and give it a stab.” Bethany is now pregnant with her third kid, so we wonder if she’ll end up competing next year.
In 2014, Bethany dominated and won first place at the Pipeline Women’s Pro. While the waves weren’t too massive, Bethany noted, “they were better than most spots around the world that I surf.”
She was given no special assistance yet was still able to defeat talented surfers, including Moana Jones and Anastasia Ashley. After the competition, she wrote on her FB page, “It feels good to surf and compete well and take the win!” Bethany deserves all the respect in the world!
Carrie Underwood starred in Bethany’s film as youth pastor Sarah Hill, who helps the young surfer recover. It wasn’t a huge role, but it was significant. And like the rest of the cast, Carrie spent a lot of time in the clear Hawaiian waters.
But she didn’t take up surfing once the film wrapped up. She revealed, “I enjoy being by the water but being on the water is scary. I’m a horrible swimmer. I’m fear of drowning, kind of girl.” Didn’t being next to shark attack survivor Bethany inspire her to get over her fears?
After surfing monster waves and winning competitions, jump roping is undoubtedly a piece of cake for this pro surfer. But it’s an achievement worth noting! So many people trip over themselves despite having two arms to control the ropes.
Bethany posted an incredible video on FB showing off her new one-arm skills. She used a special full-circle rope for the task and jumped around with Mark Ronson’s uplifting “Uptown Funk” in the background. The lyrics to the song totally suit the mood – “Don’t believe me, just watch!”
Bethany knew she would become a mom one day but didn’t think it would happen so soon. The surprising timing caught her off guard, and she admits she felt apprehensive and even a bit scared at first. She spilled her heart out to People Magazine:
“It was a hard time in my life, just embracing motherhood. I think a lot of women struggle with it, so I thought it was really important to share the truth of that. I had a lot of fears entering into motherhood. I didn’t know what life would look like after. And I think a lot of women deal with that. I hope that it can encourage a lot of women because it is such a special gift, and I’m so glad it’s my life now.”
Bethany was honored to join forces with director Aaron Lieber for her film Unstoppable. She loved his movie Zero to One Hundred, which starred surfer Lakey Peterson. And she was excited to see what Aaron would do next with her story.
At the end of the filming, she revealed, “I feel to this day that I’m in awe of Aaron. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s such a motivating and hard-working and just an amazing human. Yeah, so I feel like I made a good choice working with him.”