Her fame showed up fast and for all the wrong reasons. Bethany Hamilton was meant to arrive to the mainstream as a champion, as the premier female surfing talent of her generation — blessed with world-class athletic ability, whiplash-inducing beauty, and a spirit so definite and defined that it could light up a room.
Instead, at the age of 13, the Hawaiian native was attacked by a 15-foot tiger shark in the early-morning hours while surfing with some friends at her home break, Tunnels Beach, on the island of Kauai. She lost her left arm and more than 60 percent of her body’s blood while slipping into hypovolemic shock on the way to the hospital.
Lucky to be alive when she emerged from the hospital some three weeks later, Hamilton was a media sensation: the blond-haired teenage surfer girl who had escaped death. But while everyone fawned over her and fretted about how the traumatic experience might derail the young teenager, Hamilton was planning a plot twist no one saw coming: One month after the attack, she was back on her board.
In the 15 years since, Hamilton has lived a life that is, if nothing else, one of pure inspiration. Not only was she back to surfing a week after leaving the hospital, but she also got right back to living after being released from the hospital. Her losses on that fateful October 2003 morning have done little to limit her. Quite the contrary, actually.
With her Christian faith as compass, Hamilton has been able to draw full and powerful lines through a life that is anything but ordinary. She is a mother of two, a wife, a public role model for young women all over the world, a relentless advocate for amputees, the head of a nonprofit foundation, and, of course, one of the best wave riders you will ever see, no matter their sex or able appendages.
Her evolution from pity-worthy headline to an undeniable source of courage, inspiration, and awe is the stuff of fairy tales. She’s made the rounds on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show, 20/20, and Good Morning America, and ESPN honored her with the 2004 Best Comeback Athlete ESPY Award. She won money on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and appeared on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Amazing Race. Hamilton’s story is the subject of a book, a documentary, a Hollywood film starring Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, scores of magazine features, and, most recently, the 2018 film Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.
Filmed by director Aaron Lieber over the course of four years, Unstoppable is a high-gloss, feature-length, ultra-personal look at Hamilton’s relationship with the ocean and how it’s evolved in the years since she had to relearn everything as a one-armed teen. From tow-ins at 50-foot Jaws and draining Indonesian barrels to fin-free aerial antics in Bali and countless unfiltered family moments in-between, Unstoppable is a portrait of equal parts grit and grace.
In anticipation of the April 14 Santa Barbara premiere of Unstoppable — an action-packed day at The Arlington Theatre with Hamilton herself onstage — the Santa Barbara Independent caught up with the 29-year-old to talk to her about the film and what it’s like to ditch the “victim” label to realize a life beyond your wildest dreams.
What does the film’s title, Unstoppable, mean to you? I may not have always thought of myself as being “unstoppable.” But I was basically put in a position when I lost my arm where I could’ve stopped my life passion or kept going — and you know what I chose. Since then, it has been a part of my life every day, the choice to let something hold me back or not. I don’t always put the word “unstoppable” to it in my mind, but it’s what my life drive has been from a third-person point of view.
Are you tired of the shark attack stuff yet? It seems to always be how people introduce you or describe you. How do you move beyond such a defining life trauma and start telling a story that is rooted in the blossoming of a new day? Nicely said! Yes, I’ve grown weary of the shark attack label; but it is part of my story. While I’ve learned to embrace it, part of me working on Unstoppable is to help tell that new story. I’ve not just continued to surf; I’ve done so at a level that is comparable to the top women surfers in the world!
Clearly your faith is a big part of your strength and your identity. How do you see the intersection of your faith and your surfing? Is God in the ocean? I can remember being around 8 years old, on the beaches of Hawai‘i, confidently believing in God and the grace and love God has for me, with all my sights and talent being driven toward becoming a professional surfer. My confidence in these two things shaped the foundation of who I am today. Even when I was attacked by the shark and lost my arm, I have been able to stay stable in my mind and beliefs.
Today, I’m a wife and mom of two beautiful healthy boys, and this truth is still the same. The strength, identity, and foundation of my life is in the faith and grace that God has given me. If I were a tree, faith would be my roots. This is how I know that whatever huge life “waves” or gnarly challenges come my way, the Lord is with me and will sustains me through it all. I like to say that because of Him, I am “Unstoppable.”
It’s obvious to even a casual surf fan that your talent with a surfboard is truly world class. Do you ever play the what-could-have-been game? Or have your hardships made you a better surfer in ways that otherwise might not have been attainable? It’s hard to not think about what level I would be at if I had not lost my arm. I think I would have been world champ without a doubt. Unstoppable addresses this a bit. While I’ve always been determined and committed to surfing, I think the unique challenges I faced because of losing my arm made me use my brain in a different waym which inspired innovation. I love the life I live and am grateful to God for my family, my surfing, and being able to share my story to encourage others.
Is there pressure with being such an inspiring person? I’d imagine it can occasionally be difficult to navigate the difference between Bethany Hamilton the story and Bethany Hamilton the person. I don’t think about trying to live up to a label. That would be exhausting. I just live my life in pursuit of what I love to do. Knowing the world, especially young girls, are watching does keep me accountable to being a solid role model, and that’s the type of person I really want to be. Especially with two young boys now, I want to show them a solid foundation. Actions speak louder than words.
If you had to boil down all your life wisdom and hard-earned lessons into a punchy sentence or two, what would you share? Oh man, this is too hard, but I’ll give it a shot. How about, “Forgive and be forgiven. Make the most of what you’ve got and make it fun!”
The Santa Barbara premiere of Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is on Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m. at The Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). Kathy Ireland will host a Q&A with Hamilton following the film. There is also a VIP after-party on the Arlington patio, complete with music, drinks, and paella by Loquita. All proceeds from the day will go to the Santa Barbara–based nonprofit Wonderfully Made (wonderfullymade.org). For more info on the film, see bethanyhamilton.com/unstoppable. To purchase tickets ($30; $25 for kids up to 12 years old; $150 for VIP), contact the Arlington Box Office or go to axs.com.