By Paul Salfen & Photo by Jonathan Zizzo
Bethany Hamilton may just have more willpower and determination than anyone you’re likely to meet. The 21-year-old professional surfer became a media sensation at the age of 13 when she lost her left arm to a 15-foot tiger shark while surfing and lived to tell about it. What’s more notable, though, is that in less than a month, she was back in the water learning to surf again. The Hawaiian native had been in surfing competitions since 8 and she wasn’t going to let this derail her. Hamilton was back to competing the next year and starting winning championships the following year and continues to compete and win awards today.
Hamilton released a book about her journey called Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family and Fighting To Get Back on the Board, which was later turned into a short film called Heart of a Soul Surfer.
There’s now a big studio film of her life story simply called Soul Surfer that hit theaters in April starring Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood and AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton.
New York Resident: Your story has now been told in a book, a short film and a feature film. What has this journey been like for you retelling your story in these different mediums?
Bethany Hamilton: It’s been a long journey - starting off with the book and having a movie made off of the book. It turned out really good. My whole family and I were involved in the making of it and I’m excited to share it with everyone. It’s fun to share my life story. I know that it will encourage a lot of people.
NYR: A lot of people would probably not venture in the water again after your experience. What made you do it – and do it so quickly?
BH: From the beginning, my main reason to continue surfing was because I love it and it’s something I wanted to try and do [again]. That’s how it started. I’m a professional surfer to this day and along with being a surfer comes being a good light to people and encouraging people who are going through hard times to just press on through whatever they’re struggling with.
NYR: Do you have a mantra or something you tell yourself when things get hard?
BH: I guess it’s just that I’m a passionate surfer and surfing it what I do. I just take it one day at a time. I’ve set goals for myself and know what I want to accomplish. I think taking it one step at a time and not thinking too hard about it and just enjoying it is how I do it.
NYR: How hard were the day-to-day struggles and obstacles to overcome?
BH: Over time, I’ve just adapted. There’s a few things I get my family to help me with but as far as struggles, certain surf conditions can be challenging. It’s hard to explain if you don’t understand surfing.
NYR: Mission trips have been a big part of your life and a turning point in your story. Do you still get to do those?
BH: I love going on mission trips. Thailand was a really cool experience because it was after the tsunami and a lot of people were really scared of the ocean. A lot of their lifestyle is fishing and being in the water and teaching them to surf [and not be scared] was great. I’ve gone to Mexico a few times with my church and that was great, too. I go when I can – it’s been a little hectic with the movie and all but I’d love to carry on if I can.
NYR: Was there ever concern about the faith-based nature of the story while trying to get it out there for everyone to enjoy?
BH: I’m sharing my story as it is and I want people to see the truth of it without it being watered down or changed. I’m excited to share how much God loves each and every one of us and how He has touched everything I’ve done. The film shows the struggles with faith and learning how to surf again – there are so many aspects of the film that will be exciting for people to watch.
NYR: How did you feel about AnnaSophia Robb playing you and did you spend much time with her?
BH: As soon as we found out AnnaSophia was going to be playing me, she came out to Hawaii so I could teach her how to surf and get to know her. She was picking my brain with a bunch of questions that she had. She wanted to be in-depth and really learn about the part she had. We became good friends. She doesn’t live around water but she’s a natural athlete so it turned out really well.
NYR: And you got Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as parents!
BH: Yeah! They’re almost as cool as my parents! [Laughs] They did great!
NYR: Some people may not be familiar with your story and in the film, those who aren’t seem to stare and maybe ask inappropriate questions. Do you still get that?
BH: Yeah, definitely. People stare when they see someone without an arm and it can be annoying sometimes. Sometimes it’s like, “Uh, can I have my space here for a minute?” Often times they’re just curious and they want to know about you and your life. It’s OK. I can handle it. My friends don’t even notice me having one arm now.
NYR: As seen in the movie, you did have a prosthetic arm. Why did you choose not to try it?
BH: Hangar Prosthetics ended up donating an arm to me and I still have it. I’ve kind of outgrown it and got used to life with one arm. I can’t really be bothered to put it on all the time. And running around all day and getting in the water – it just gets in the way. [Laughs]
NYR: You’ve been able to reach so many people with your story. What’s one thing you’ve been the most proud of?
BH: Me and my friends and family started an organization called Friends of Bethany and it reaches out to people who have lost limbs or who are going through hard times. Ultimately we’d like to start funding prosthetic limbs and help people with anything they need help with.