In 2003, 13-year-old surfing phenom Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a terrifying shark attack. Undeterred, Hamilton won her first national title in 2005, and went pro in 2007. She is pictured above in 2008, surfing in Mentawai, Indonesia.
On Oct. 31, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton was well on her way to a successful surfing career. But that morning, while catching some waves off the north shore of Kauai, Hawaii, she was attacked by a 14-ft. tiger shark. Hamilton survived, but lost her left arm.
Just a month later, she was back on her board. In 2005, she won her first national title, and turned professional in 2007. Now 21, Hamilton is the subject of Soul Surfer, a movie based on her life. She sat down with NPR's Liane Hansen to talk about the movie and her unlikely comeback.
AnnaSophia Robb (left) portrays Hamilton in the new film, Soul Surfer. As a Colorado native, Robb didn't have much surfing experience, so Hamilton showed her the ropes. "I wanted her to at least look like she could surf ... and then I came in for some stunt-surfing," Hamilton says.
AnnaSophia Robb (left) portrays Hamilton in the new film, Soul Surfer. As a Colorado native, Robb didn't have much surfing experience, so Hamilton showed her the ropes. "I wanted her to at least look like she could surf ... and then I came in for some stunt-surfing," Hamilton says. Noah Hamilton/BethanyHamilton.com
Hamilton is no stranger to the media. The new movie — starring Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid and AnnaSophia Robb — isn't the first to be made about her. A 2007 documentary, Heart of a Soul Surfer, chronicled Hamilton's life before the attack, and her road to recovery. She has also brought her story to print, in a Soul Surfer book series.
Although Hamilton wasn't the driving force behind the film, she did suggest actress AnnaSophia Robb for the starring role. When Robb got the part, she traveled to Hawaii to train alongside Hamilton.
A native of Colorado, Robb had very little surfing experience, so it was up to Hamilton to help her appear like she knew what she was doing on a surfboard. The secret, Hamilton says, is all in your paddle.
"As an avid surfer, just by the way someone paddles I can tell how long they've been surfing, or what their skill level is," Hamilton explains. "I wanted her to at least look like she could surf ... and then I came in for some stunt-surfing."
As the resident expert, Hamilton performed most of the one-armed stunts for the movie herself. Thanks to the help of her father, Hamilton was able to develop a board that enabled her to surf at a competitive level again.
At first, getting back in the ocean was difficult. "It was really hard to get out into the surf because you have waves breaking ... and you need to be able to push your board — and yourself — underneath the wave," she explains. "It was very challenging because you normally have both hands to grab both sides of the board."
To solve this problem, her dad put a handle on her board — an idea he picked up from the lifeguarding surfboards that he saw on the beach. The addition gave Hamilton the stability she needed to balance.
Hamilton poses in 2003 with the surfboard she was riding when the shark attacked her earlier that year.
Hamilton poses in 2003 with the surfboard she was riding when the shark attacked her earlier that year. Noah Hamilton/BethanyHamilton.com
But getting back on her surfboard wasn't just a question of re-learning how to balance. Initially haunted by nightmares, Hamilton had to overcome her fears before she could fully recover. Now, eight years after the attack, Hamilton says her life has returned to normal.
"Doing everything with one arm, being well-known, and having a book and a movie, it's fairly abnormal," she admits. But, "as far as just not having to worry about past experiences, I've healed very well," she says.
In fact, Hamilton says that she has adapted so well to her new lifestyle that her friends even forget that she's missing her left arm. And staying out of the water was never really an option. Hamilton wasn't afraid of another shark attack, but the thought that she wouldn't surf again terrified her.
"To lose your everyday life of surfing and being creative on waves, enjoying the ocean — that's scary to me," she says. "It was essential to at least try surfing again and get out there and see how it went."
Luckily for Hamilton, her resilience paid off. She is now living out her dreams as a professional surfer. "It's exciting just to see how life works out," she says, "and how good can come out of bad situations."