Bethany Hamilton on charging waves, enjoying motherhood and empowering women.
It’s been nearly 13 years since surfer Bethany Hamilton’s headline-making shark attack, but the Kaua`i native continues to soar in not just surfing, but also with philanthropic work around the world, as well as in her personal life as a wife and new mom to son Tobias, born last June.
Described as a living miracle, Hamilton lost her left arm to a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing at a popular Kaua`i surf spot called Tunnels on Halloween 2003. Overnight, she was thrust into the spotlight, with no warning or preparation for the onslaught of media inquiries from news outlets around the world. Everyone had questions for her, but she had many too, adjusting to life as an amputee and the uncertainty of her surfing career.
Eventually, through her faith in God, the love and support of family and friends, and as an outpouring of encouragement from fans near and far, she gained the strength to not just return to the water, but do it victoriously.
Less than a month after the shark attack, the remarkable teen was back chasing waves, and within two years was a national champion. Now 26, she’s become one of the best female surfers in the world. In January, she was seen riding a monster 50to 55-foot wave (on the face) at the famous big wave surf spot known as Peahi, or Jaws, on Maui— her biggest wave yet. Her current project is a surf film titled Surfs Like a Girl, which includes footage of that epic surf session at Jaws, and is scheduled for release April 2017.
“That’s my biggest passion project, and it’s consuming a lot of my time this year,” says Hamilton. “It’s a documentary on my surfing career and surfing ability. There are a few things I’m excited to share in the film, and I want to encourage women in their sport.”
She admits she still has a hard time talking about herself, but her inspiring story has made her a sought-after motivational speaker, and the face for a variety of companies, including Rip Curl, Cobian, Crush sunglasses, Damon Smile, FlyGrip, Sticky Bumps and Jamba Juice Hawaii.
“My message, when I speak, depends on my audience (corporate events, youths, churches, etc.),” she says. “I share my story and how I overcame it, and how to find hope in hard times and persevere through the struggles. Usually, I also share my faith in Christ, and how that was my foundation.”
Throughout the years, she’s been honored with numerous accolades, including an ESPY (Comeback Athlete of the Year 2004) and Nickelodeon Kids Choice (Favorite Comeback Athlete 2014) awards. She also has a New York Times best-seller autobiography, a Hollywood movie with a star-studded cast based on her life, and she made a cameo on Dolphin Tale 2 and a guest appearance on NBC’s The Biggest Loser. In 2014, she and husband Adam Dirks teamed up to compete in the popular TV reality show The Amazing Race, and finished in third place.
“I remember when I first lost my arm and all the fame that was kind of thrown at me, in a sense,” she recalls. “It was pretty shocking and hard to cope with at first. I think, growing up on Kaua`i, it’s so small and laid back, then, all of a sudden I’m traveling, writing a book and starting to do public speaking. All these different things were coming my way—things I eventually grew passionate about—but it took some time to really embrace this opportunity to share my story and encourage other people through their struggles.
“Now I look back at it and see that God has been taking me through it, and my supportive family has been encouraging me too. I feel really grateful for the life I have.”
She is also involved in humanitarian work and community service, including mission trips with her church youth group, and a visit to Thailand with World Vision, where she helped local children and orphans get back in the ocean following the 2004 tsunami. Nationally, she has been working with Make-A-Wish for many years, and together they’ve developed an annual surf camp that allows Hamilton to grant wishes to multiple children from across the country at one time. Th is year, 13 wish kids participated, along with their families.
“I love granting wishes, but there were so many, so this way I can still surf with all the kids,” she says. “They also bring their family, and it’s a huge blessing for them to take a break from a lot of what they’re going through.
“This (past February) was our third year, and the first year we did it, one thing we noticed is all the families can bond with each other, including the siblings. A couple of the families hadn’t even seen the ocean before.”
There also is her nonprofit, Friends of Bethany, founded in 2007 with a mission to encourage a broken world by offering hope to overcome through Jesus Christ. Last month, the foundation held its first Bethany Hamilton’s Hawaii Elite Surf Camp for up-and-coming surfer girls, empowering them to not just be the best surfers, but outstanding role models too.
“The foundation was my dad’s idea,” explains Hamilton. “After what my family and I had gone through, the local community was so encouraging and supportive in helping us get through that time that we wanted to be able to love on other people when they go through their hard times. It started off with reaching out to amputees and shark-attack survivors, and now we’re branching out to doing youth outreach and women’s events— things I’m personally passionate about, too.”
Hamilton has been surfing since she was a toddler. Her parents, Cheri and Tom, moved to Hawai`i in the 1970s for the surf, met, got married and had three children. “They would take us to the beach all the time and get us on the waves,” says Hamilton about her childhood with two older brothers Noah and Timothy. “I had a passion for surfing from a young age.”
Now she hopes to pass on that passion to Tobias. When the HILuxury team met with her mid-February, she was still waiting for the right conditions—the perfect clean day. We also got to witness Hamilton living her life as any normal adult and new mom, from making coffee to feeding and burping Tobias.
“I love being a mom, I love it even more than I thought I would,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to have kids. We’ve been married for a few years now, and we planned maybe three or four years after we got married, so it was a little sooner than we thought. But with Adam’s support, I’m still able to do a lot of what I hope to do.
“I’m still surfing professionally, and wanting to surf better and better, so I’m working really hard at that. It’s just a big change with balancing life and being a mom, so the biggest adjustment would probably be managing time and planning out your day. You have to give yourself an extra chunk of time.
“Also, the biggest thing to me is my child’s life is more important than my own, and that my husband and I just want to be good parents for him. The day they come out, you don’t really know them, but you just have this instant love for them that you would even die for them.”
When she can, Hamilton also enjoys freediving, shell picking, cooking and playing tennis. That’s if she’s not catching waves at her favorite surf spot, Hanalei Bay.
She spends about half of the year traveling, but home is and always will be Kaua`i. She still lives in her hometown of Hanalei, and no, she’s not related to the other famous Hamilton surfer on Kaua’i, Laird. But she says she knows him and sometimes works out with his wife, Gabrielle Reece.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says. “When I come home, I’m just so happy to hang loose and not have a hectic schedule. I prefer to just go to the beach and have family time than when we’re traveling. We usually have a crazy schedule and it’s go, go, go.
“(Ten years from now) I’m hoping to be a full-time mom, hanging out on Kaua`i and kind of keeping it a little more mellow. It’s such a simple lifestyle. I love the community and my family is all here too. I love everything about it.”