Reclaiming her story, writer Lauren L. Hill on a surfer who thrives as one of the most well-rounded and technically proficient athletes on the planet
Most professional athletes are defined by the best days of their lives, the times when all the training and determination paid off and they clinched a world title. For Bethany Hamilton, though, just the opposite has been true. While the fame of her shark bite and survival story allowed her to transcend surf culture and inspire millions with both book and movie deals, it has also meant being publicly and endlessly defined by the worst day of her life. But that day hardly sums up Bethany, considering that she’s gone on to be one of the most well-rounded and progressive female surfers, ever.
Bethany was always a natural. From a young age, her smooth and powerful surfing stood out. Born and raised on the small island of Kauai, Bethany regularly competed in the boys' division of local surf contests and regularly won. Even more impressive than skills, her early surf and swim coaches recall her uncanny drive and dedication to exceeding athletic expectations. By all accounts, she was a world champion in the making.
At 14, after losing her left arm to a shark, Bethany was back in the water within a month. She shocked the surfers in her cohort—including Hawaiians Carissa Moore and Coco Ho—by showing up to compete in the NSSA Nationals just two years after the incident. She won the 18 and under division, a proving ground for up-and-coming professionals.
Bethany’s remarkable story has tended to outshine her exceptional surfing talent, a narrative she is now actively reclaiming. Her most recent film, a documentary called Unstoppable, chronicles a raw and personal account of her rise to fame, the challenges of balancing career and motherhood, and an unwavering commitment to evolving her surfing. “I’ve learned that from awful times beauty can come,” she wrote on Instagram. “We can choose who we become through it all!” Unstoppable presents her career as a thriving, not merely surviving, world-class professional surfer.
Over the past decade, after setting aside her childhood dreams of winning a world title, she honed on the elements of progressive surfing and stretched not only her abilities but the accepted possibilities for women’s surfing.
Six months after giving birth to her first son, she towed into bombs at Pe‘ahi. And, unsatisfied with only experiencing jet ski assist, she proceeded to paddle in—a feat considered impossible a mere decade ago, for any surfer. Many parents are still experiencing the hangover of sleep deprivation with a six-month-old, breastfeeding baby, not performing at the highest levels of extreme sport.
Then there’s Bethany’s tube riding prowess, which rivals the skill of anyone on the world tour. She was able to prove that, without question, with her dominance as a Wild Card invitee to the 2016 Fiji Pro, where she knocked out then world number one Tyler Wright with a near-perfect 9-point ride. Her drive and commitment were palpable, with aggressive, snapping turns and solid tube riding indicative of an underdog with nothing to lose, unencumbered by expectations or self-imposed limitations. She progressed to the semi-finals and made a clear statement about her place among surfing’s competitive elite.
Her performance in Fiji led to an ESPY Award nomination—for “best female athlete with a disability.” She publicly withdrew her nomination and inspired dialogue about the language of differently-abled athletes. “I’m far from disabled, I compete against the world’s best,” she told Australia’s ABC News. “That category should be eliminated or called Best Adaptive Athlete because so many of these athletes that are categorized as disabled are so incredibly abled.”
Although Bethany possessed natural talent in the water, it was the hard work she put in that elevated her game, especially when it came to boosting her aerial surfing. She trained on trampolines with former tour surfer Shane Beschen to refine the adaptations she’d need to apply to whip her aerials around. “A lot of guys use their back arm a lot and exchange their weight from one side to the other, but I just feel like overall with my surfing I’m very adjusted to using my one arm. You just have to use your whole body positioning for airs; it’s so much more than just your arms. I don’t see having one arm as a disadvantage for progressive surfing.” In 2014, a clip of Bethany stomping a whirling, above-the-lip air reverse in Bali went viral in surfing circles, solidifying her place among the highest-calibre technical surfers of her cohort.
Having grown up among the punchy, hollow reef breaks of Kauai, Bethany doesn’t shy from tucking into chandelier sections or pulling into big tubes. Four years of swell monitoring went into realizing her 20-year dream of relishing in the cavernous blue cylinders of Teahupo‘o, one of the heaviest waves in the world, where she stood as tall and comfortably as anyone could with the weight of the ocean hurling overhead.
At Teahupo‘o, a left, she surfed on her forehand with ease. She calls backhand tube riding “one of the technically harder things for me to do” because it usually requires grabbing your outside rail and digging your body into the wave to stay in the pocket. Of witnessing her unparalleled approach, Kelly Slater, 11-time world champion, said: “Bethany’s backside tube riding is an athletic feat that not any other person on earth has accomplished. She blew me away.”
Besides stretching the boundaries of women’s surfing, Bethany is now a mother of two boys and runs her foundation Friends of Bethany Hamilton, which holds retreats called Beautifully Flawed to support amputee girls through surfing and camaraderie. “Especially in our culture nowadays, there’s this image of perfection that’s just drilled into women’s minds and even guys, too. But I just think that all of us have our unique beauties and talents, and though we may not be perfect, I don’t think that striving for perfection is really what life is all about. But being your best and loving your talents and passions is.”
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