Bethany Hamilton first tried to surf at age 5. She could catch a wave and stand up on the board without help by age 7, and entered — and won — her first competition the following year. Before long, the Hawaii native had snagged her own sponsor (Rip Curl, a surf-gear outfitter) and was being home-schooled to accommodate her training schedule. She was barely a teenager, yet her dream of becoming a pro surfer seemed not just possible but almost inevitable.
Then, on Halloween morning 2003, the unthinkable happened.
The day started like any other. At 5 a.m., the 13-year-old rolled out of bed to hit the beach. The wave report for that morning was pretty uninspiring — no good surf spotted around the island. But Hamilton wanted to go anyway, so her mom dropped her off at one of her usual spots. She joined a group of fellow surfers and they all paddled out to wait for a few good waves.
As Hamilton rested on her board, a tiger shark came out of nowhere and bit off her left arm, which had been dangling in the water. “I never saw the shark closing in on me,” says Hamilton. “[If I had] I’m not sure I’d be able to live with the nightmares or ever go back in the water.” She also believes that not seeing the shark coming helped her remain calm immediately after the bite — a reaction that probably saved her life. As it was, she lost over 60 percent of her blood volume during the attack. Had she thrashed and panicked, she would likely have lost even more blood and died.
The next several days were a blur of surgeries, but as time passed and she began to heal, her anxiety shot up. “I began to worry about the future: Will I have to forget about surfing forever? What am I going to do?” says Hamilton, now 23. She also fretted about being defined by the attack for the rest of her life. She didn’t want people to pity her or think of her as a person whose life had been ruined.
So within a week she made two promises to herself. She would never wallow or walk around moaning “Woe is me,” and she would get back on her surfboard. She kept that second promise just 26 days after the accident.
“When I first returned to surfing, I was very afraid of sharks,” says Hamilton. “The attack that happened to me was such a rare occurrence, but I still thought about it. So to fight that fear I would just get in the water and focus on catching the waves. I refused to dwell on ‘what-ifs.’”
The physical reality of surfing with only one arm was also an adjustment. “I had really frustrating days,” says Hamilton. “Some days I would go into the water and come out of the water crying, but I just kept at it.” Her determination paid off. By the following year, she was competing in national competitions, and within five years she was a staple on the professional surfing circuit. Today she is ranked 48th among female surfers worldwide with the Association of Surfing Professionals.
While the accident wasn’t something she would have wished for, she has embraced it as part of her life — and discovered many unexpected silver linings. “One of the most beautiful things that came from the accident is how it has allowed me to see that I can overcome difficult things,” says Hamilton. “It taught me that I have the ability to overcome my fear in scary situations.”
She also finds joy in being an example for other young amputees — and for girls in general. “There aren’t that many great role models for young girls,” says the creator of the charitable organization Friends of Bethany, a nonprofit that donates money to child amputees around the world. “It’s really special to be a role model for girls who are going through so much — hormones, body changes, adjusting to how they look in the mirror — no matter what has happened to them.”
Hamilton continues to surf daily and she pursues other far-flung adventures. In March, she competed in the Gazelle Rally, a women-only car race (without GPS, phones or other modern tech) across Morocco to raise awareness for women living with a hereditary risk of cancer. She has also started public speaking, a task known to induce anxiety.
Does anything scare her? “Yes,” she laughs. “I’m terrified of spiders.”
She also worries about losing the capacity to surf. “To lose that ability would be devastating,” says Hamilton. To ward off that anxiety, she focuses on the present moment — a task that, coincidentally, surfing helps facilitate. You have to be in the here and now to stay up on a surfboard, Hamilton explains. And if you zone out, you miss one of the sport’s most exhilarating side effects — variety.
“No two days on the water are ever the same,” Hamilton says. “That is part of what makes it so addictive.”
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.