How Surfing Legend Bethany Hamilton Overcame The Unthinkable

Childhood In Paradise

Even from the very beginning, there was practically no chance that Bethany Hamilton would escape the surfing bug. She was born and raised on the Hawaiian rainforest island of Kauai to a family that had made riding the Pacific waves their passion.

Precocious Learner

By the time she entered kindergarten, at just five years old little Bethany first learned how to surf. Unsurprisingly for a girl growing up in a surfing family, she took to it like a natural. And her progress was nothing short of astounding. At age 7, she was already able to stand up on a board by herself, surfing with no assistance. It was plain for all to see that the Hamiltons’ daughter was destined for greatness — she was about to make waves of her own.

Rising Star

Nine-year-old Bethany Hamilton clearly stood out from her peers. She began surfing competitively, and as it turned out, she was incredibly talented at the sport. The world quickly noticed Bethany’s talent. Rip Curl, a company specializing in surfing gear, picked her up and became her official sponsor. She wasn’t even in middle school and she already was becoming a big name. And it was only going to get bigger.

Budding Career

Bethany Hamilton was fast becoming a superstar. As Bethany’s parents saw her enormous potential for success as a top surfer, they enrolled her in as many surfing competitions as possible. It meant that this young Hawaiian’s lifestyle was going to change drastically.

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Bethany Hamilton became famous across the world as a remarkably talented, precocious young surfer. In a streak of success, she continued winning competition after competition. It seemed to all who watched that Bethany was a true force of nature. She was absolutely unstoppable. Surfing had become Bethany Hamilton’s life and livelihood, the very air she breathed. Even in her spare time, getting out into the water was her favorite thing to do. And that’s why she got up at the crack of dawn one fateful Halloween morning.

Halloween Sunrise

On October 31, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton rose at the crack of dawn, around 5 AM. Her mother gave her a ride to Tunnels Beach, just outside of Wainiha on Kauai’s lush northern shore. There, Bethany met up with her best friend Alana, and Alana’s dad and brother.

No Idea She Was Being Watched

Bethany was relaxing in the water not far from Alana. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and the water was relatively calm. So Bethany lay down on her board and waited for waves to come so she could catch them. She had no idea she was being watched.

Waiting For Waves

There were plenty of sea turtles in the water to marvel at. It was a beautiful and tranquil Friday morning typical of everyday life in Kauai. As Bethany waited for waves to gather, she trailed her left hand off the surfboard in the water. It was a harmless, unconscious action, one that never seems to bear any negative consequences. Bethany had no way of knowing it in that moment, but from this simple action, by merely placing her hand in the water, her life was about to be forever altered.

A Terrifying Blur

When the attack came, it all happened so unbelievably fast. One moment Bethany Hamilton was relaxing on her surfboard, and in the next split second she was suddenly being dragged back and forth. Something in the water had clamped onto her left arm.

Something Had Grabbed Her

Whatever had grabbed her, its movements showed it had no intention of taking her down into the water. Instead, it was moving rapidly from side to side. She couldn’t see what was happening, but she knew one thing above all was imperative: staying on her surfboard.

Staying Afloat

As an unknown force she couldn’t see pulled her by her left arm, Bethany Hamilton managed to not be taken down into the ocean. She grasped the side of her surfboard, clinging on by the thumb of her right hand in order to regain stability and not tip over.

Fighting For Her Life

As she fought to stay afloat, she didn’t feel any pain, just the frenzied movements of whatever had taken ahold of her. After a few moments of struggle with her unseen foe, Bethany noticed something she hadn’t seen before. The ocean water around her was all red.

An Unbelievable Discovery

As soon as the attack that had disturbed the calm of the balmy Friday morning had come upon Bethany, it was over. She had managed to stay on top of her surfboard the entire time, but it was still unclear to her what exactly had happened.

Something Was Not Right

She didn’t feel anything, but seeing the red seawater flowing around her surfboard showed her clearly that something was terribly wrong. It was in that moment that she looked and saw an almost surreal sight: her left arm had been almost completely severed.

Evacuating Bethany

As it turned out, Bethany Hamilton had been attacked by a shark, and it had torn off her left arm. She was badly bleeding, but somehow, managed to maintain an astonishing calm despite the terrible circumstances. Her surfboard was also victim to the attack, with a 16-inch chunk missing.

Calling For Help

Bethany called to her friends for help, who paddled over to her as fast as they could. Sheer adrenaline kicked in, as Alana, her father, and brother all had but one goal: racing Bethany to shore as fast as possible. What if more sharks were attracted by the commotion?

Unbelievable Strength

It was only when Bethany made it to shore, with the help of her friends, that she started to feel the intense pain from her left side. Through prayer and concentration, she breathed through it, knowing that at least she was not alone.

Crossing Kauai

Bethany Hamilton eventually passed out as she waited with her friends for the ambulance to come. It would take more than an hour for them to drive her from the site of the attack to the hospital at Wilcox Medical Center, on the east side of the island.

In The Hospital

Bethany’s dad, Tom, was in the same hospital at the same time. By chance, he had arrived there that morning in order to undergo a previously-scheduled knee surgery. Doctors postponed Tom’s surgery in order to make way in the room for his badly wounded daughter. She was immediately taken into emergency care. It was yet to be determined if she would pull through. Everyone waited breathlessly to hear any update about her condition.

A Lot Of Damage

Bethany Hamilton survived the shark attack on that Halloween morning, but the miracle of her recovery was nothing to be taken for granted. Bethany had come dangerously close to losing her life. The body goes into shock from losing more than 20% of its blood. Bethany had lost 60%.

The Attacker

The culprit was a fourteen-foot long tiger shark, and it had to have been the one that attacked Bethany: it had surfboard chunks in its mouth. Tiger sharks are one of the most dangerous shark species, made even more so by their tendency to frequent shallow waters, where swimmers and surfers are most likely to be found. Bethany had survived this beast’s assault. But what would happen to her?

The Star Recovers

Bethany Hamilton had to recover from the injury for three whole weeks. For a girl so used to being physically active and hitting the waves, that time period must have seemed like an absolute eternity. But her fans wanted to make sure she didn’t spend that time alone.

Life-Changing Questions

Now that the critical period of recovery was over, Bethany had to come face to face with the most trying questions of her young life. Now that she was an amputee, how would she be able to effectively surf? How could she paddle out and properly balance with one arm? It seemed impossible.

Bethany’s Promises

In bed recuperating, Bethany made two promises to herself. First, she refused to allow the shark attack to be what defined her, or the first thing people would think about her. She wanted people to respect her for who she is, and she would not give in to self-pity.

Learning To Surf

She was determined to get back on the board. Astonishingly, just 26 days after the attack, Bethany was back in the water. Barely a month had passed, yet she simply couldn’t wait any longer — it was time to get back on track. But it would be a rocky road.

Unseen Assailant

She would often leave the water crying. And there was another huge worry. The fact that Bethany Hamilton had never seen the tiger shark that had attacked her turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because she hadn’t seen her nemesis, it spared her a number of nightmares, and had kept her calm during the attack.

Fighting Fear Itself

Bethany began singing and praying in order to overcome her fears. Finding her calm, quiet space would take some work, but she had it in her. After all, it was her impressive ability to keep calm that had saved her life during the shark attack itself.

Paying Off

Her mental and physical work all paid off. She had designed a longer, thicker surfboard that would better support her body, allowing her to more fluidly stand up while balancing with just one arm. It had a handle, so she could paddle better. She was going to rise up.

Back On Her Feet

Barely 3 months after the devastating tiger shark attack, Bethany Hamilton went back to competing once again — and to her great joy, she was still able to win first place! Her life had been permanently altered, but her talents had never gone away, regardless of the circumstances.


In 2004, not even a year after losing her arm that October morning, Bethany Hamilton became the National Scholastic Surfing Association title champion in Australia. Not long after that, she swung back to her home country, and won the same title in America.

Giving Back

Tragedy struck Southeast Asia in December 2004 with the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that left entire regions destroyed and uninhabitable. Bethany Hamilton felt an immediate urge to do something to try and help those devastated by the disaster. Not long after, she booked herself a trip to Thailand.


Bethany volunteered with children in three Thai seaside villages affected by the tsunami. Just like she had overcome her fear of the water, she taught children surfing to help them with their trauma. If anyone could show them not to give up hope, it was her. But what did her family think?

Rethinking The Water

The shark attack affected Bethany’s family in more ways than the obvious one. In addition to guiding Bethany as she adapted to her new life as an amputee, it changed their own habits. They themselves were all surfers, and therefore also potentially vulnerable.

Brushes With Danger

As it would seem, if you surf in Kauai for long enough, chances are, no matter the precautions, you’ll come across sharks. According to Bethany’s mom, over the years Bethany has had three shark sightings with potentially dangerous sharks since the accident.

Would It Happen Again?

There was even a time where a five-foot hammerhead shark swam directly under her surfboard. It was enough for her to call it quits for the day, and she immediately went back to the beach. But the girl who had defeated every obstacle before her wouldn’t let this stop her.

Bethany Reaches Out

Bethany Hamilton penned an autobiography called Soul Surfer, which would later be made into a full-feature film. She has gone on Oprah, and had several documentaries filmed about her. Her insistence on constantly moving forward despite all odds has inspired fans around the world.

Surfing Over Adversity

Despite being famous across the planet, Bethany Hamilton has never strayed far from her roots in her tropical island paradise. She still lives in Kauai, now married to Christian youth minister Adam Dirks. Together, they have two small children, Tobias and Wesley.