WE all know the story: On October 31, 2003, then 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm after being attacked by a 15-foot tiger shark at home in Kauai. The attack forever altered the course of Hamilton’s life–it also redefined her identity.
Before that day, those around Hamilton saw her as a world champion in the making. She had already landed a sponsorship from the surf brand Rip Curl, and in the next few years she was expected to breeze through the World Qualifying Series, climb the World Tour ranks and eventually pocket a world title or two. But on that fateful Halloween morning, a large macro-predator swam up from the depths of the ocean and hijacked the narrative of Hamilton’s ascension in surfing.
In just a few seconds, Hamilton transformed from an up-and-coming surf star into a shark attack survivor. She became a household name overnight–just not in the way she had dreamed of.
Hamilton has moved on with her life and over the past decade has become a wife, a mother and a world-class professional surfer. Still, 15 years after her attack, Hamilton is often portrayed in the media as a victim of circumstance. But she’s done playing that role.
TWO years ago, in the Sea of Cortez, Hamilton was getting ready to face off with a different kind of oversized fish. She was on the deck of a 160-foot mega-yacht with her platinum-blonde hair pulled into a ponytail and a lavalier mic clipped to the collar of her shirt. Three cameramen trained their lenses onto Hamilton as she fastened an odd, bright-blue fishing harness around her entire upper body. The contraption was specifically made to allow fishermen and women to catch large sea creatures with the use of only one arm, and if it weren’t for the fishing pole attached to her waist, you’d think the unwieldy harness was a piece of skydiving equipment.
Hamilton had recently been invited to make a guest appearance on “Destination Baja Sur,” a reality fishing show apparently popular among deep-sea fishing enthusiasts. The goal of this specific episode was to get Hamilton to reel in a 200-pound striped marlin with one arm.
It was a bizarre scene to watch, with the silver-haired and deeply-tanned host coaching Hamilton on the gear while her mind was likely on the new south swell that was filling in along the nearby East Cape. But Hamilton’s accustomed to making strange media appearances that have nothing to do with surfing.
When she was released from Wilcox Medical Center in 2003, hordes of microphone-toting reporters were waiting for Hamilton outside the hospital. It had been only a week since the attack and she wasn’t ready to recount the gory details of what had happened. So she and her family gathered their things and snuck out through the hospital’s back entrance. They were met by two Kauai police officers, who escorted the Hamiltons to a nearby residence so that she could recuperate in private.
Once she felt strong enough, Hamilton agreed to share her story. She was featured on “20/20,” “CNN Live,” “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show” and even “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” She started receiving bushels of fan mail each week and within a year, at only 14 years old, she was offered a book deal, which then snowballed into a movie deal. “Soul Surfer,” Hollywood’s dramatized version of her story in which Hamilton was played by the actress Anna Sophia Robb, garnered $47 million at the box office after its 2011 release and earned her the adoration of audiences worldwide.
Once the wheels of notoriety started turning, they became hard to slow down. Over the past decade, Hamilton has made countless TV and movie appearances. She competed on “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” (she was), taught contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” how to surf, and, for some reason, had a cameo on TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting”–a reality TV show about an Arkansas couple with 19 children. Not long ago, she was asked if she was interested in a role on “Sharknado”–a made-for-television science fiction movie franchise about unexplained waterspouts that funnel man-eating sharks out of the ocean and into the city of Los Angeles. She politely declined.
There was also the National Prayer Breakfast in 2014, where she gave a speech in front of President Obama. “That was nerve-wracking,” she admits. “The night before I was crying. I was so stressed out and I didn’t feel ready. Adam [Hamilton’s husband] had to write my speech out for me and help me practice it.”
Hamilton understands why she’s become a media sensation–there are few storylines more compelling than a surfer surviving an attack from a 1,400-pound apex predator and then returning to the water. But over the past few years, Hamilton’s been trying to reclaim control of her narrative, showing people that she’s not a victim–she’s a world-class athlete. And she’s working on a movie project that will put that part of her story front and center.
Back in 2011, Hamilton met surf filmmaker Aaron Lieber during the making of Lakey Peterson’s profile film “Zero to 100.” While on a trip with Peterson and Hamilton, Lieber was immediately impressed by Hamilton’s abilities, which would have been dazzling even from a surfer with all of their limbs intact.
“I remember shooting a session with her and Lakey in Indonesia,” recalls Lieber. “She was doing these strong, frontside hacks, then would get barreled, come out of it and do another one. Honestly, if there had been a heat going on that day, Bethany probably would’ve beat Lakey–and Lakey is an amazing surfer. After that I told Bethany she should make a project to show everyone how good she is at surfing.”
Hamilton and Lieber started filming in 2014. They stockpiled unseen archival footage from when she was younger and began traveling to some of the world’s best surf spots. They starting doing trips to thumping beach breaks in Mainland Mexico, chasing perfect drainers in Indonesia and they even whipped Hamilton into 50-foot surf at Jaws, capturing all of it on camera.
“After making ‘Soul Surfer,’ I feel like so much of my raw, real-life surf talent got overshadowed by my shark attack,” says Hamilton. “It feels weird telling my own story, but I think it’ll be cool for people to see this side of me. I hope by now core surfers realize that I surf decent and I’m up there with the top girls.”
She’s hoping, with the release of this film, people both inside the world of surfing and out will look beyond the novelty of a girl surfing with one arm and see her how she sees herself.
“I just did two media tours when I was in California, which involved like 25 interviews, and at the beginning of every single interview they introduced me as ‘a shark attack survivor,'” says Hamilton. “I know that will kind of haunt me forever, because it’s inevitable and people can’t help but bring it up. But come on, let’s just look a little bit past that.”
LATE at night on the mega-yacht, after hours of fruitless trolling for marlin in the Sea of Cortez, Hamilton stopped by my cabin for an interview despite being understandably exhausted. Earlier, her then one-year-old son Tobias had gotten seasick, and as if spending the day fishing and taking care of a nauseated baby weren’t enough, she had also done a 50-question interview for Hilton Hotels. As we talked, she laid down on her side on the bed across from mine, holding a baby monitor in her hand. Without all the cameras trained on her, her celebrity air had vanished, leaving a tired young mom in its place.
Along with everyone else who had followed Hamilton’s story, I knew the publicized version of her surf career, and how much the shark attack turned it all upside down. Her own account, however, is a little less dramatized.
“I remember I won a lot of contests as a grom,” she said. “I was really young for my age group, competing against the high school girls, but I did pretty well. Then I won some juniors events. I guess I lost my arm at one point…but whatever.” She pauses and chuckles. “Moved on from that and continued doing contests.”
Hamilton said that after the attack, she learned how to adjust her technique to compensate for her missing arm. “It’s a matter of your whole body composition. For a while I wasn’t really good at long, drawn-out frontside turns. I think it was because I didn’t have that back arm to really bring it around. But that’s not an excuse. When I put time into it and worked on it more, it was fine. With all of surfing, you could probably pull almost anything off with no arms. It’s all in your hips and your shoulders and your head.”
By the time she was 18, she started competing full time on the World Qualifying Series (‘QS). She missed the qualification mark twice–by one spot the first year and two spots the next–but it wasn’t due to a lack of talent. Hamilton’s strength is her ability in powerful, pumping surf, similar to the waves she grew up surfing in Kauai. But when it came to paddling and duck diving through the many shapeless beach breaks that made up the ‘QS schedule back then, Hamilton struggled.
“Half of the problem with qualifying was just dealing with paddle battles and surfing crappy waves,” said Hamilton. “I remember being in Brazil surfing a huge beach break, and the competitors and I paddled out 10 minutes before our heat. I didn’t even make it out in time for the start.”
Coco Ho, who competed against Hamilton during this time, remembers what a grind the ‘QS was back then. “It was hard,” says Ho. “There was no priority system and the waves were definitely below average, so it was difficult for anyone to put it all together. I know for a fact that if it were now, with a few more quality events and a priority system in place, it’d be a lot easier for her to make the Tour.”
After missing World Tour qualification for a third year in a row, and with increasing demands placed on Hamilton the public figure, she took a step back from competition.
“By that time I was starting to get offered opportunities outside of surfing and had different responsibilities I had to take care of,” she said, alluding to the release of “Soul Surfer” and the media obligations that went along with it. She also began taking more public speaking engagements and was working on growing her non-profit organization, Friends of Bethany, which works to support others who have lost limbs.
“I can’t say I didn’t want to be on Tour, but I didn’t want to put in the effort to do the ‘QS,” said Hamilton. “I’m almost 6 feet tall and those waves were barely 6 inches tall. There were girls half my size who were struggling to wiggle on those waves.”
Despite leaning into her responsibilities beyond surfing, Hamilton never stopped chasing quality waves and improving her surfing. When Lieber and Hamilton started filming for her movie, they hired former World Tour surfer and star coach Shane Beschen to help Hamilton hone her air game. He had her doing repetitive trampoline exercises and taught her how to offset her missing arm by moving her head and shoulders more than the average aerialist. The training worked. Shortly after Hamilton started working with Beschen, she went to Bali and landed a clean, no-grab air reverse at a lined-up left-hander. The clip went viral.
In 2016, Hamilton finally got a chance to show her competitive chops in quality waves when she accepted a wildcard (the third the WSL had offered her) into the Fiji Pro.”The first year they asked me, Adam and I had committed to doing ‘The Amazing Race,’ and to me, that was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance, so we were excited to do it,” says Hamilton. “Then in 2015, I was giving birth. I was literally having contractions and going into labor while I was watching the girls surf the Fiji Pro.”
Hamilton arrived on Tavarua for the 2016 event with her baby and husband in tow. If you watched the contest, you know that she made 6- to 8-foot Cloudbreak her plaything, linking some of the most powerful forehand turns of the event. She beat some of the best women on Tour–including Tyler Wright, who went on to claim the world title that year. She almost looked like she was going to win the whole thing, until she met an in-form Carissa Moore in the semifinals. Over the course of one event, Hamilton eviscerated any doubts that she had what it takes to compete on the Tour.
In the aftermath, commentators and surf fans described Hamilton’s performance at Cloubdreak as “inspirational,” and it was. But Hamilton tends to roll her eyes at the word. To Hamilton, it indicates the slight distinction between being impressed with what someone can do with one arm and being impressed with what they can do, period. And for Hamilton, she’d prefer to be seen through the lens of the latter.
“When you look at footage of her, her power and her technique are just beyond words,” says Ho. “But I think sometimes people are drawn to her one arm and aren’t even looking at what her board is doing. I think her technique gets overshadowed.”
After the Fiji Pro, Hamilton was nominated for an ESPY award. But once she found out it was for the Best Female Disabled Athlete category, Hamilton swiftly withdrew herself from the nominees.
“It just wasn’t an award I wanted to receive,” said Hamilton. “I don’t look at myself as ‘disabled.’ I encouraged ESPY to at least change the name of that category to something like ‘Best Adaptive Athlete.’ So many of the athletes in that category were such incredibly abled athletes that smoke half of the world with their abilities.”
IN her book, Hamilton tells a story about flying to New York with a friend, not long after her attack, to present at the Dove Awards–basically the Grammys of Gospel music. They were sitting in first class when her friend suddenly elbowed Hamilton in the ribs and pointed across the aisle.
It was Patrick Swayze, and he had been looking over at Hamilton, apparently recognizing her from all the media attention she recently received. Her friend pressed her to go get an autograph from the Point Break star, but Hamilton refused. Not because she didn’t want to, but because she’d already been in Swayze’s shoes too many times before. “I get tired of people asking me for my autograph,” she said.
It took Hamilton a while to get used to her celebrity. “Becoming famous was actually harder than losing my arm,” says Hamilton. “I really didn’t thrive on attention and I never liked being in the limelight.” As a teenager she’d be self-conscious during interviews, not always finding the right words to express herself. Other times she’d just get tired of having to tell the same story over and over again.
Now Hamilton sees her fame as a double-edged sword. Through her foundation, she’s been able to encourage young amputees and help them overcome the fears they deal with on a daily basis, taking them surfing and organizing retreats. She’s also had the opportunity to work with the Make a Wish Foundation.
“There have been kids overcoming major surgeries or going through rounds and rounds of chemotherapy who watched ‘Soul Surfer’ while they were in the hospital,” says Hamilton. “I probably wouldn’t have been a source of inspiration to them if I hadn’t gone through what I did and had just won world titles instead. They probably wouldn’t have had a clue who I was.”
But the loss of anonymity that accompanies fame is something that Hamilton never got used to. Anytime she travels, goes out to dinner or runs errands, people stop her for an autograph or ask if they can take a photo with her. But what separates Hamilton from other celebrities is the influence she’s had on people dealing with their own hardships.
One year, Hamilton and Lieber were in Santa Barbara visiting Peterson for her birthday. “We had just gotten out of the water and a line of like 20 people just starting forming in the parking lot to meet her,” remembers Lieber. “In cases like that people will come up to her and they’ll dive into these stories about how Bethany’s story helped them overcome cancer or the loss of a family member. It’s tricky for her because she wants to hear these people out, and she’s stoked to help people through those things, but hearing that heavy information day in and day out, there’s weight with that.”
Receiving praise from random strangers may seem like a constant confidence booster, but Hamilton assures me it gets old after awhile. “I start to crave normal people interaction–normal smiles, normal conversation–not the ‘You’re famous’ or ‘You’re a shark attack survivor’ talk,” she says. “I don’t want to hear about myself every time I go to the grocery store–sometimes I just want to buy my apples and bread and kale and leave. But I chose to do ‘Soul Surfer’ and I chose to put myself out there, so I’ve just got to handle it.”
“When you survive a car accident, you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of that every single day for the rest of your life,” says Lieber. “People come up to Kelly Slater and are like, ‘Dude, you won 11 world titles, sick.’ But when people come up to Bethany they’re like, ‘Wow, you lost your arm!’ They don’t say anything about surfing 50-foot Jaws or beating Steph Gilmore in Fiji. It’s not anything she wants to be proud of. She understands the role and position she’s been put in, but she’s still human you know? She’s just a girl who wants to go surf.”
A few months ago, I gave Hamilton a call while she was at home on Kauai. She was in the middle of putting Tobias down for a nap when she answered and I could hear her giving him an exaggerated goodnight kiss. It had been almost two years since our strange meeting in Baja (she never did catch that 200-pound marlin), and a lot had happened since then. She towed into super-sized Teahupoo, she was invited to test out Kelly Slater’s wave pool, she was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame alongside Mick Fanning, and she finally finished filming for her movie. Oh, and she was getting ready to give birth to her second child.
At almost 8 months pregnant, Hamilton was trying to adjust to being out of the water. “I stopped surfing a month or two ago,” she told me. “But I’ve just had this anxiousness like I need to be working on things and getting better. I do a lot of mind strengthening, watching footage and stuff like that. But I haven’t been as on it as I intended to be.”
It’s clear that even with a growing family and an exhausting life as a public figure, Hamilton still sees herself as an elite surfer first and foremost. We continued talking about the future–about how she’d be interested in joining the U.S. Olympic surf team if they move the venue to a wave pool, or how maybe, just maybe, she’d try to qualify for the Tour again if the new qualification schedule seemed doable. I thought back to that day in Baja, as we rocked back and forth in the Sea of Cortez. I had asked her what she thought her life might have looked like if things had played out differently back in 2003, if she surfed a different break that day or if the shark decided to swim right past her.
“I think I had a chance at world titles,” she told me. “The way my surfing was at that age was pretty unique. I was taking the right steps and I had a good head on my shoulders and the right family support. But I mean, who’s to say I couldn’t do it now with one arm, you know? That sometimes crosses my mind. Like, what if I got over wearing wetsuits and surfing crappy waves on the ‘QS, then maybe I could win a world title. And as a mom!” She laughed, imagining the scene. “But you can’t ‘what if ‘ everything. I take life as it is and I love what I’m doing now.”
When people become famous for something, they’re often flattened in the public eye–reduced to the one thing that earned them their fame. Paul McCartney is a musician; Jimmy Fallon is a talk-show host; Tom Brady is a football player. When you achieve any level of celebrity, you’re no longer a multi-faceted, three-dimensional person–you’re just whatever fits on a lower third title card.
The moment Hamilton hopped back on a surfboard after losing her arm, she became “Bethany Hamilton, the shark attack survivor.” It’s not untrue, but it’s also just a tiny part of Hamilton’s life story–the story of a woman, a mother and a world-class athlete whose best surfing is still to come. And now, she’s ready to write the next chapter.