The first time 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton got back on her surfboard after a shark severed her left arm, she had one big fear. And it’s not what you’d think.
“My only real fear was that I would not be able to surf again because I was concerned that I would not physically be able to do it,” she says. “I knew that if I wasn’t able to surf then my life would really change.”
But with a lot of practice and sheer force of will, Bethany did surf again — and just a few short years later, in 2007, she achieved her lifelong dream of going pro. This year, Soul Surfer, a film adaptation of Bethany’s 2006 memoir directed by Sean McNamara, inspired millions of moviegoers. (Unlike some Hollywood reenactments, it’s remarkably accurate, as the filmmakers actively sought her input. “My family and I practically lived on the set during filming!” she says.)
We talked to the now 21-year-old surfer about staying in shape, playing herself in a movie (sort of) and how she kept smiling through the darkest of days.
SpryLiving.com: What kind of adjustments did you have to make to your surfing technique after the accident?
BH: The hardest part at first was getting enough speed to catch waves with one arm. I was known for my strong paddling, so it was quite frustrating to not be as fast, but I figured it out with determination and over time. Standing up was also difficult with only one arm to push me up; also readjusting my balance to my different body. Like any sport, it just took practice.
SpryLiving.com: Why did you decide not to wear a prosthesis?
BH: I could not rely on a prosthetic arm while I surfed because the remainder of my arm was so short that a functional, weight-bearing prosthesis wasn’t an option. It worked well from a cosmetic perspective underneath clothes but eventually I just became so comfortable with ‘Stumpy’ – as I affectionately call it – and my lifestyle with one arm that I really don’t feel like I need another one. I know for some it can be awesome. I just like to keep it simple and use what I do have!
SpryLiving.com: Did anything about the experience make you a better surfer?
BH: I think the experience made me appreciate the sport even more than I already did and really motivated me to improve my surfing every day. I have competed professionally around the world since then and I am amazed at how supportive and tight-knit the surfing community is. It’s a really special thing to be a part of!
SpryLiving.com: What kinds of activities do you do outside the water to stay in shape?
BH: I do quite a bit of cross-training and work with my trainer Dustin Dillberg to keep my body strong and my spine aligned. I typically train 2-3 times a week with TRX Suspension Training. It develops strength, balance, flexibility and core stability simultaneously. It’s rad and I love it! I’m a very active person in general so when I’m not surfing or training I love playing tennis and swimming as well as hiking and biking with my friends and family.
SpryLiving.com: How did you work with AnnaSophia Robb, the actress who played you in Soul Surfer?
BH: I was so excited when I learned AnnaSophia was going to play me. When I met her, I was absolutely shocked because I’m 5’11” and she is about up to my shoulder. I was nervous about me doing the stunt surfing and it matching, but it worked out in the end. We had a lot of conversations about my story prior to filming and went surfing together a lot. She was a little timid in the water at first but it was so much fun helping her overcome her fears about big waves. She fell in love with the ocean. I’m always happy to pass that stoke on. We’re very good friends now and I think we always will be.
SpryLiving.com: What was it like filming the stunt surfing scenes—and acting as your own double?
BH: It was a lot of fun. For all of scenes in the water, there was a camera operator on a jet ski riding alongside me and then another camera in the water filming head on as I caught waves. I was actually really nervous when we filmed five days of “pick up surf footage” in Tahiti. The waves were gnarly and I really felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to perform—and of course I wanted to do my best! I started off a bit shaky, but as soon as I got a few good waves I started to relax a bit more and just did my thing! I’m in the ocean just about every day and it’s my job so I should be right at home and I am, but it was just the fact that it was for my “Hollywood movie.” Kind of a big deal! (laughs)
SpryLiving.com: You blog a lot about healthy eating on your website, bethanyhamilton.com. Has that always been an interest?
BH: It has since my late teens. I’m very passionate about healthy living in general but I absolutely love healthy yummy food and getting creative in the kitchen! Our country is pretty out of control when it comes to making unhealthy choices and we rarely think about all the artificial sweeteners, trans fats, bad salts, overload of sugar and all processed foods we put it into our bodies on a daily basis. I think that the best way to combat our national health crisis is proper education. I see my blog as an opportunity to encourage and educate people who are interested in living healthier lives. I frequently post tips and food recipe ideas alongside my fitness and training videos.
SpryLiving.com: Why did you decide to join forces with Damon System orthodontics?
BH: When I was 14 years old, I had a messy mouth of teeth so I underwent orthodontic treatment with the Damon System and I am really stoked with the result. I had a severe underbite, lots of crowding and there was open space between my upper and lower teeth even when my jaw was closed. The Damon System’s high-tech braces transformed my smile comfortably with fewer office visits because they do not need to be traditionally “tightened” which was great for my hectic schedule.
My goal in working with Damon Braces goes beyond straight teeth. We’re hoping not only encourage kids, teens and adults to pursue the healthy and beautiful smile they all deserve, but also to empower them to smile through life’s many challenges. That’s really what our “smiling through adversity” message is about.
SpryLiving.com: What does that phrase mean to you? What made you smile during the toughest times of your recovery?
BH: My friends and family were a huge influence in lightening the mood of things. We are practical jokers so there are always a lot of laughs. My brother Timmy kept the laughs coming while at the hospital.
For me, smiling through adversity means finding something positive to focus your energy on in the midst of a really difficult situation. I’ve read that smiling actually improves mental health and when we smile, even if we’re not feeling particularly happy, our mental state changes to match that positivity we’re putting out into the world.
We all struggle in our lives and it’s very easy to get stuck dwelling on the negative or what we don’t have. I think the real challenge exists in discovering what can bring back our smile. In my life, the things that make me smile are God, my family and friends, and of course, surfing!