At the age of four, she showed promise of becoming a pro. At eight, her first competition proved that she was well on her way. But now, at 13, her dream had been literally torn from her.
Lying peacefully, Bethany Hamilton held the nose of her surfboard with her right hand as she dangled her left arm in the turquoise Hawaii Ocean. She waited eagerly for the next set of waves to roll in. Then, without warning, a flash of grey surged out of the blue calm. Bethany suddenly felt intense pressure on her left arm. She felt hard, swift tugs, and watched the clear water around her fog with red.
“I just got attacked by a shark!” she said to her best friend nearby paddling away instinctively. Her friend’s father and brother quickly came to her side and helped her paddle the 20 minutes to shore. She looked to her left side. Her left arm was completely gone almost to her shoulder. Unusually calm, perhaps on autopilot, Bethany kept thinking, Get to the beach… Please, God, help me. God, let me get to the beach.
The young surfer came in and out of consciousness as an ambulance drove her 45 minutes to the hospital. By the time the doctor looked at the shark-bitten girl she had lost 60 percent of her blood—it was a miracle she had survived this long. The doctors cleaned her stub and cut her nerves so they’d retract. They closed the wound with a flap of skin.
Bethany would recover, but losing an arm meant that the surfer girl inside her would die. Life would be very different from this point forward. She needed two arms to surf. Without her left arm, every aspect of life would be very different.
One day into her journey toward recovery, she told her dad, “I want to be the best surf photographer in the world.” It was her way of admitting that her surfing days were over, her dreams of going pro washed away in the tide. Her family and friends didn’t voice it out loud, but they all believed the same thing. Even if she could manage to stand up on a wave, competing was out of the question.
In the recovery room, the feeling of nausea after surgery wore off. Bethany had already started contemplating how soon she’d be able to get back to her salt-water home. She wasn’t going to give up on surfing—not before she at least tried. Maybe her one arm would be as good as two.
Only three weeks after the shark attack Bethany found herself unable to resist the temptation of the salty scent and warm breeze as she watched her friends rip through the curling water. With a patch covering her wound, the eager surfer girl set her long board in the water and began to paddle out. Unconcerned about sharks, Bethany paddled out with one arm and managed to catch a small wave.
“I was not afraid of being attacked by a shark. I didn’t even think about it. My whole mind was concentrated on catching a wave and getting up on my feet,” she said.
She was learning to surf all over again. Bethany attempted to get up, but she couldn’t maintain her footing long enough to stand. Trying to find her balance and figuring out where to position her arm was a challenge. Wave two came rolling in, and still she lacked chemistry with her board, and again she failed. Worried that she’d have to stick to body boarding she prepared for wave three.
The wave carried her forward on its crest. She placed her hand toward the center of the board and slid from her parallel position onto her feet. Now in a crouch, she stood leaning to the left. She was up. Once she was standing, the ride came naturally. She was surfing!
“It was so special because it was a rush, and even though it was a small, tiny junk wave, it was like, the rush was as good or even better than any wave I had gotten before,” she said.
On her second day in the surf, she went from the white water, which seemed like ripples to her, to blue waves. Barely two months after that she joined her first competition. She placed fifth out of 24 competitors. At her next competition, she placed first.
It’s been nine years since that day and now Bethany finds herself listed as one of the top 20 female surfers in the world.
Perhaps what helped Bethany drive toward success more than anything was her perspective. Many athletes—many people in general—would be devastated and give up after going through such a tragedy. But young Bethany fought through the negativity.
“I have been very blessed in my life…. I have to look at the big picture: I have a family that loves me,” she said. “I could have died. I could have been really mangled. I could have been hurt so bad that I might not have been able to surf again. I have lots and lots of things to be thankful for.”
Not only did Bethany focus on what she had rather than what she lacked, but she also viewed her missing limb as a blessing more than a curse. She believes she’s been able to do more without her arm than with it by becoming “living proof that there’s no such thing as a handicap—it’s only in your head.” Rather than allowing a “woe-is-me” attitude to hold her back, she stayed determined to get back on the board. As her dad said, with Bethany there’s “no woe—just go, go, go!”
The fear of another shark attack doesn’t even keep her out of the water. “Life is full of what-ifs. You can’t let it hold you back,” said Hamilton.
While not having an arm is still a permanent trial for Bethany, her perspective that helped her reach where she is now still plays in her head today: “Knowing that God loves me and that He has a plan for my life that no shark can take away is like having solid rock underneath me. Lots of bad stuff happens to people. That’s life. And here’s my advice: Don’t put all your hope and faith into something that could suddenly and easily disappear. And honestly, that’s almost anything.” Whether at 13 or 50 or 100, that’s an amazing perspective for someone to have!
Maybe the obstacles in your life seem menial compared to what Bethany went through, or perhaps you’d rather lose an arm than have to deal with what you struggle through now. While Bethany’s trial is very different from what you face your attitude doesn’t have to be. You face hardships as well, and whether they’re more dramatic or less dramatic than what Bethany is experiencing, they are still big to you, and they are still shaping your life. Don’t let them keep you out of the water! Regardless of how much bite the shark in your life has, your perspective will determine whether you surf through life like a pro, or remain handicapped on the shore. Get back on the board!