From shark attack survivor to pro surfer mum
Sitting on the beach, watching her friends glide through barrels with confidence, fear forced Bethany Hamilton to stand on the sidelines while others danced with the waves.
With her arm torn off by a 4m tiger shark less than a month earlier, it would have been understandable if she never dipped toe in the ocean again.
But we all know the power of FOMO and the then 13-year-old was plucky.
She called her family to bring her a surfboard and hit the water. It would be the first time she took on the ocean since her encounter with an apex predator.
Minus one limb, Bethany got up on her third wave and rode it all the way back to the beach.
“All of a sudden I knew I could do it and that there was no turning back,” Bethany says.
Now 30 years old and a mother-of-two, the Hawaiian pro surfer is on the way to Australia to promote her new documentary Unstoppable.
From a young age, Bethany had a talent for navigating the waves in her hometown of Kauai.
She started competing when she was just eight years old, but her promising career was derailed on October 31, 2003.
“That day changed my life forever,” she says.
“So many doubts, fears and unknowns flooded my world.
“But the hope I found as a Christian led me to overcome, along with the amazing support of my family, the kindness of my community and my life’s passions.”
She vowed to not let her injury define her, and was back competing in surf competitions within a year.
“I feel like there is no such thing as a handicap, it is all in your head,” she says.
“My passion for the ocean outweighed my fear of sharks.
“It has been a challenge and I have had to be creative in the surf.
“But as weird as it sounds, it is good that it is challenging because it is rewarding.
“I’ve learnt life is a lot like surfing: When you get caught in the impact zone, you need to get right back up, because you never know what is over the next wave.”
She soon began to realise a professional surf career was possible. She climbed the competitive ladder in a matter of years, which saw her win ESPY’s 2004 Comeback Athlete of the Year and the 2005 US Under-18 National Championship.
She has collected a number of World Surfing League accolades, surfed some of the biggest waves in the world, penned inspirational biographies, started a charity, and was the inspiration behind 2011 movie Soul Surfer.
When reminiscing on her 22-year career, she says her record sporting performance at the Fiji Pro in 2016 still gives her goosebumps.
Not long after the birth of her first child, Tobias, she gained a wildcard entry to compete at the famous Cloudbreak.
Her bronze medal performance saw her out-surf and outscore World Surfing League’s No. 1 Tyler Wright and our homegrown world champion Stephanie Gilmore.
“It was such a great achievement and the most memorable event ever for me,” she says.
“It felt so good to surf powerful waves and knock some of the best surfers in the world out of the competition.
“2016 was an amazing year full of beauty and challenges of becoming a mumma but also continuing my surfing career.”
2018 was also a year to remember with the birth of her second son, Wesley.
Bethany, husband Adam Dirks and children Tobias, 4, and Wesley, 2, still reside in Kauai, Hawaii.
The team of four will be heading Down Under for the first time together for the Australian premiere of Unstoppable this month.
Bethany says her film, which features intimate and archival footage of her and her family, takes everyone on an incredible journey.
“It shows you how a young girl rises to the top of her game and against all odds becomes one of the leading professional surfers in the world,” she says.
“To share the movie with Australia feels really special.
“Australia is filled with ocean lovers and so surf-centred and I know it will be appreciated to its fullest.
“You will see my whole life and witness me achieving some of my dreams and goals, and some surprises and challenges along the way.
“I think everyone will get something amazing out of it.”
The movie also shows audiences surfing is far more than just a sport for Bethany.
“As you will see I find the ocean really healing too and it is somewhere you can be ultimately present without the distraction of technology, which is so rare these days,” she says.
“The ocean is always somewhere that calms me down and was my haven while I was pregnant.
“People do not normally do it (surf) but it was not a second thought for me – it is like walking.
“In the documentary I get to share my journey entering motherhood, having a baby, continuing surfing, and the ups and downs of it all.
“It was really cool to share because there are not a lot of mothers in professional sport.
“My mum kind of let go of surfing after she had kids, but I never want to let go of this.
“I may not be competitive in 10 years from now but I will be still up there doing my thing and enjoying the ocean.”
Over the next couple of weeks, she will compete in the World Surfing League qualifying events in New South Wales to try and snag a spot in California’s 2020 Vans US Open in August.
“I have not had a focus on competing in the past four years,” she says.
“But I am getting back into it more and I am really excited to put all my effort and focus into that area. I am super pumped to compete – it is exciting.
“I really want to show female athletes you can have beautiful babies, go back and compete and do what you love.”
With a bright smile Bethany also wanted to flag her time in Australia was not just work-related but also a time to celebrate and have fun.
“It is our son Wesley’s birthday while we are here,” she says.
“To mark the occasion, we will be making the most of the amazing Australian espresso and we will definitely make sure the boys try a meat pie.”
The pro surfer says she loves Australia and plans to travel to her favourite surf spot – Byron Bay – while she is here.
She is also calling upon Australian politicians to look at issues of overfishing and pollution, and wants to see sharks protected. Yes, you read correctly.
“I think (shark) attacks stem from far larger issues and mankind has a lot to do with it,” she says.
“The ocean is their home and I want to see sharks protected.
“Australia is quite well-known for attacks and my charity often provides resources to Aussie victims.”
Bethany and her family founded Friends of Bethany in 2007, a Christian-based charity with a mission to support and encourage traumatic amputees to “be their beautiful self and to be unstoppable”.
After receiving immense support from her local community and family over the years she is motivated to give back.
The foundation sends and hand delivers “encouragement packages” to shark attack survivors or traumatic amputees across the world, conducts online programs, and hosts conferences and empowerment retreats for young amputee women in the United States.
Bethany says what seems like the “most awful thing to happen” has turned into something beautiful.
“I could not have had the impact I had if I had not lost my arm,” she says.
“Everyone faces struggles and hard things in their life and to inspire people going through tough stuff is a privilege and exciting.
“I just want to provide the feeling of support, like I had, and remind people they will get through it and everything will be OK.
“I just want everyone to see the good and beauty in life and for them to move forward in their lives with confidence and strength.
“I have learnt an important lesson that sometimes we get emotions of overwhelming fear and doubt right before our biggest growth moments.
“We need to push through and believe we can do anything we put our mind to.
“You have to surround yourself with people who care about you and keep your eyes focused on the things you are passionate about.”
Bethany lives and breathes her own mantra — when you’re unstoppable you do not need easy; you just need possible.
Unstoppable will screen nationally from March 13. Pacific Fair Cinemas will host a special Q&A screening with Bethany Hamilton on March 30. Visit pacificfair.com.au