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The incredible story of a young Hawaiian surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack.
There are few more inspiring stories in sport, let alone surfing, than that of Bethany Hamilton. A truly inspirational figure who’s experienced something more traumatic and overcome a challenge that most of us will never experience. But Bethany Hamilton hasn’t simply overcome a barrier but gone on to excel and compete with the world’s best, redefining what’s possible on a surfboard and pushing women’s surfing.
Bethany’s remarkable story has been well documented in the mainstream media, with TV shows, books, and even a Hollywood movie, recreating her journey for the world to see. Today, we take a deeper dive into the life of Bethany, going beneath the surface into her story, from where she grew, how the fateful day played out, and what happened next.
We’ll also explore her journey through a remarkable recovery, her return to competitive surfing, her personal life, the accolades she’s collected, and where Bethany is today. We’re in for a heck of a story, so grab a cuppa and let’s dive in!
Growing up in Kuaui
Bethany Meliani Hamilton was born in Kauai, Hawaii, on February 8, 1990. Kauai is a paradisical island with world-class waves, although you wouldn’t know it as the island remains an “underground spot,” and no filming is allowed there. The high wave quality and lack of crowds make it one of the best places on earth to grow up as a surfer.
As a budding surfer, 13-year-old Bethany juggled school, free surfing, and competing in national surf contests. This was how things played out in Hawaii for any up-and-coming surf grom. Her best friend, an aspiring professional surfer, and model, Alana Blanchard, surfed with Beth regularly, and their families were tight friends. What the two families didn’t know was that on one day in October 2003, everything would change forever.
The Shark Attack
It began as any typical day would on Kauai’s north shore, an early rise, healthy breakfast, talking about where to surf, discussing conditions, and gathering up surf stuff. Tunnels Beach, known locally as Makua, would be the surf spot of choice on this particular day. Bethany, Alana, Alana’s father, and brother would all meet up that morning and, after the short drive out to the beach, waxed up and paddled out together.
The waves are fun, in the 3-4ft range, and the four trade waves together. It’s a beautiful morning, and the vibe is happy, ecstatic even. There is a long lull, a gap in surfing where no waves come through, and the four surfers bob in the water, chatting while eagerly awaiting the next set. Bethany lies flat, stomach down on her surfboard, talking with Alana. Her arms are dangling off the rails of her surfboard, hanging in the water. As she’s talking, Bethany’s arm is gripped and pulled by an incredible force. A 14-foot tiger shark rises from her left side and locks its teeth around Betahny’s arm, ripping it off.
The water turns red, and the Blanchard family scrambles to help Bethany. They help her paddle to shore, and on the sands of tunnels beach, Alana’s father fashions a tourniquet from a torn-up rash vest and leg rope. They jump in their truck and race to the hospital. As they’re driving, Bethany goes into hypovolemic shock, and the blood loss is severe.
It’s said by the time Hamilton reached Wilcox Memorial Hospital, she had lost over 60% of her blood. As it happened, Bethany’s father was in the same hospital that morning, about to undergo knee surgery. But as his daughter is rushed into the building, he gives up his bed and postpones his surgery. Doctors save Bethany’s life, and after recovering for a short time in the hospital, she is taken home. After a few weeks, 13-year-old Bethany is already back in the water.
The Recovery & Return to Surfing
In an event that would put most off surfing for life, Bethany was surfing again just weeks after the attack. But returning to surfing certainly wasn’t a case of picking up where she left off. Instead, young Bethany would have to learn to surf again and adapt to using one arm—an incredible feat. The learning process involved changing how she popped up to her feet and attaching a handle to the board’s deck.
Initially, she rode a longer, thicker board as she improved her new standing technique. Eventually, she returned to the performance shortboards she used in competition, pre-attack. This alone is a testament to her determination and will to overcome adversity. A challenge most would not overcome.
However, Hamilton wasn’t content with simply getting back in the water. Instead, she went on to chase her professional surfing dream, competing with the world’s best women and becoming one of the most influential and inspiring surfers ever to walk the planet. The Hawaiian has an extensive list of accolades and competitive highlights to show this.
Bethany’s Achievements and Accolades
Bethany has competed on the world stage, battling it out with the best in the world in some of the best waves, many of them heavy waves of consequence. Bethany has appeared in and achieved impressive results in many international contests, including top-level WSL events:
- 2010: 9th place Rip Curl Pro Portugal
- 2010: 3rd place Women’s Fiji Pro
- 2011: 13th place Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach
- 2012: Rip Curl Cup Padang Padang invitee
- 2022: 9th place Billabong Pro Pipeline
These are all notable achievements in waves of consequence. These events are held in waves that humble even the most hard-charging surfers in the world. Cloudbreak, a powerful freight train barrel in Fiji. Padang, a wide open tube in Bali. Supertubos, a thumping beachie in Portugal, and Pipeline, a wave that needs no introduction. These waves are no joke; anyone who competes at them is on a short list of surf talent. Bethany continues to show prowess in waves of this nature, most notably at Pipeline.
During the 2022 Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, Bethany packed one of the biggest, heaviest waves in the entire event. Men and women’s division. The wave she rode that day was a thick first-reef Pipe double up close out. Seriously, I watched the wave go down live and almost dropped my laptop!
Bethany Hamilton’s Impact on the Surfing World
Bethany is one of the most inspirational surfers ever and continues to inspire surfers, sports people, and the general public to chase their dreams and live with courage. In surfing, Bethany has re-invented what’s possible and continues to blow minds–doing things that haven’t been done. While her prowess in the surf is well known, Bethany has also focused significantly on public speaking events and inspiring others through her story.
Bethany Hamilton’s Personal Life
She has appeared on numerous talk shows in the USA and worldwide, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Today Show, and The Tonight Show. The Hawaiian has also been featured in high-profile magazines, Time and People. Working alongside producer Roy Hoftstter, Bethany’s movie Soul Surfer was one of the few mainstream surf movies that did a solid job at capturing true surf culture, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch!
Bethany also participates in regular public speaking events, inspiring others to overcome their challenges through her story. Bethany also continues to fight for causes she believes in and strongly advocates for women’s surfing worldwide. In 2023, she stated she would be boycotting WSL events due to their policy on transgender athletes being allowed to compete in omens events. An opinion met with critique and support in the surfing world.
Bethany Hamilton Today
Bethany is now a mother of two young sons, Tobias and Wesley, and is married to Adam Dirks. The pair still live at home in Hawaii, embodying the quintessential Hawaiian lifestyle. She continues to push women’s surfing, competing at the top level and following her passion.
Bethany Hamilton’s story is incredible, and you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more inspirational sports story. If you want to follow more of Hamilton’s life in Hawaii, follow her on Instagram and check out her documentary, Unstoppable, a thrilling motivational film that dives even deeper into the life of Bethany.
The documentary takes you through her upbringing, life before the attack, overcoming adversity, and getting to where she is today. It’s a story we can all use for motivation and inspiration both in and out of the water. If you’d like to read more about Bethany’s life and what she’s up to now, check out the trailer for Unstoppable.
Dan Harmon is a content writer and full-time surf travel enthusiast. He travels the world full-time while creating surf content, traveling to the world’s best surf destinations, and hunting out some lesser-known corners. You can follow more of Dan’s travels over on his YouTube Channel, website, and Instagram.