In 9Honey’s Women Who Survived series, we examine the remarkable lives of women who faced extraordinary adversity.
Bethany Hamilton has one of the biggest comebacks sports stories all time.
In 2003, when she was 13, Hawaii-born Hamilton was enjoying a morning surf with her best friend Alana. It was a beautiful day for a morning paddle to Tunnels Beach, Kauai.
The two friends had been swimming and surfing together for many years. Hamilton was already a champion as she had been surfing competitively since the age of eight, and by the age of 10 she had secured her first endorsement deal. So her future as a professional surfer looked incredibly bright.
Then, without warning, she experienced a horrible brush with death that would change her life forever.
The teenager was lying face down on her surfboard when a 4.3m tiger shark attacked her, biting her left arm just below the shoulder.
At first, Hamilton didn’t realize what had happened. She saw a gray flash and felt a short tug, but when she looked down the water was bright red and her left arm, along with a large chunk of her surfboard, was gone.
“I was just attacked by a shark,” she said calmly.
Alana and her father helped Hamilton row to shore. They fashioned a makeshift tourniquet from an improvised shirt, which they wrapped around the stump of his arm.
In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Hamilton lost 60% of his blood and went into hypovolemic shock.
She later claimed that she didn’t really feel the shark bite her. She remembers feeling dizzy and numb, and she stayed calm and managed to hold on to an inner strength she didn’t know she had.
A local surgeon was due to operate on Hamilton’s father’s knee the same day. Instead, they rushed her to take her father’s place in the operating room.
The family couldn’t believe that an ordinary morning at the beach had turned into such a nightmare, but Hamilton remained incredibly calm and stoic.
It wasn’t long before the story of the attack and a 13-year-old girl’s crushed dream of professional surfing captured international media attention. It seemed the shark had stolen Hamilton’s future, and many believed she would never surf again.
Yet Hamilton stunned everyone when, three weeks later, she hit the ocean again with her new surfboard.
His tenacity and bravery completely rewrote the narrative. It was clear that this teenage girl had a story that went far beyond the “girl bitten by shark” headlines.
When she first got back into the ocean, Hamilton initially rode a custom board that was longer and slightly thicker than her regular board. It also featured a handle for his right arm, which made it easier for him to paddle.
Hamilton also retrained to kick more, to compensate for only having one arm. Surfing with one arm became relatively easy, and just 26 days after the shark attack, she was competing in a major competition. She was well on the way to recovery.
As for the shark, local fishermen had spotted it in the area before and they feared it would continue to be a threat to surfers and swimmers. So the decision was made to catch the shark and kill it.
It didn’t take long for the group to catch the creature, and when its jaws were compared to the bite on Hamilton’s surfboard, the teeth marks lined up perfectly.
It was feared the teenager was slipping into depression following the loss of her arm. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, Hamilton has formed a charity, Friends of Bethany, which reaches out to other amputees to give them hope.
Hamilton wants to use her story to inspire others and she spoke about how she faces obstacles in her life.
“Some have made you stronger, bringing your purpose to fruition, while others may have made you doubt what you knew to be true. No matter what you’ve been through, one thing I know is that ‘With every struggle, we can either get stronger or get knocked down,’ she said.
Hamilton credits his faith in God as being instrumental in getting him through his tough times. She wrote about it in her book Soul Surfer: A true story of faith, family, and fight to get back on the board.
“Despite the challenges life has thrown at me, I’ve achieved so much more in my life than I could have ever imagined. From outshining some of the best female surfers in the world to having films like soul surfer done on me, and travel the world talking to thousands of amazing people,” she wrote.
The surfboard Hamilton was using at the time of the attack is now on display at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, California, along with the swimmers it wore on the day his life changed forever.
Hamilton had an incredible journey from teenage victim of a shark attack to inspirational role model.
She has appeared on several television shows and has written eight books, including Raise a Soul Surfer and Be Unstoppable: The Art of Never Giving Up.
The film soul surfer was released in 2011, based on the incredible story of Hamilton. She worked as a surfing stunt double for the actor who played her and was involved in the film’s editing process, insisting that the shark attack scene, which she felt was too intense, was toned down to reflect what had actually happened.
Hamilton married her partner Adam in 2013, and these days she juggles parenting her two boys (she surfed throughout her pregnancies) with her mission to use her status as a professional athlete to encourage the others to practice health, fitness and faith.
She is still passionate about the ocean and surfing, and she is also in demand as a motivational speaker.
Hamilton has continued to perform at a high level in surfing competitions around the world and remains one of the surfing world’s greatest ambassadors. She likes to describe herself as a “relentless winner”.
“It’s about seeing life through the lens of possibility, your future as yours to create and yourself as worth the effort!”
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