Who Is Bethany Hamilton?
Born in Hawaii in 1990, Bethany Hamilton began competitive surfing at age 8. Her promising career was seemingly derailed at age 13 when a shark bit off her left arm, but she resumed surfing shortly afterward and won a national title in 2005. A successful author and public speaker, Hamilton has shared her experiences in documentary films and appeared on several popular reality TV programs.
Early Years and Surfing
Bethany Meilani Hamilton was born on February 8, 1990, in Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii, to parents Tom and Cheri. Raised in a surfing family, along with older brothers Noah and Tim, Hamilton learned to handle the waves at an early age. She began competitive surfing at age 8, and by age 9 she had earned her first sponsorship.
A member of the Hanalei Surf Co. team, the home-schooled Hamilton proved capable of beating more experienced surfers in competition. In May 2003, she won both her age group and the open division of Hawaii's Local Motion/Ezekiel Surf Into Summer event. Shortly afterward, she finished second in the open women's division of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) National Championships at San Clemente, California.
On the morning of October 31, 2003, Hamilton went out to surf at Tunnels Beach in Ha'ena with her best friend, Alana Blanchard, and Blanchard's father and brother. While lying on her board, Hamilton suddenly felt intense pressure on her left arm and was pulled back and forth for a few seconds before the flurry passed. Initially feeling no pain, she noticed the water around her had turned red, and her shocked friends realized that her left arm had been severed nearly to the shoulder.
"I was holding onto my board, with my thumb, because I probably didn't want to get pulled under. It was like pulling me back and forth, not like pulling me underwater. Just like, you know how you eat a piece of steak? It was kind of like that."
Blanchard's father fashioned a quick tourniquet from his surfboard leash and led everyone to shore. Hamilton was rushed to Wilcox Memorial Hospital, bumping her father from the operating room where he was about to have knee surgery. Although she lost approximately 60 percent of her blood following the attack and underwent several surgeries, she was stabilized and released after a few days.
As the story drew national attention, it was determined that Hamilton had been attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark. Seemingly level-headed about the incident and the radical change to her body, she vowed to return to surfing as soon as possible.
Hamilton resumed surfing just one month after the attack, her determination helping to keep the story alive in the news cycle. Her 2004 autobiography, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, became a best seller, and she was honored for her courage by MTV, ESPN and the United States Sports Academy.
Hamilton went on to publish many more books, including Devotions for the Soul Surfer (2006) and Body and Soul: A Girls Guide to a Fit, Fun and Fabulous Life (2014).
Return to Competition
Hamilton also demonstrated that the loss of an arm was no obstacle to fulfilling her surfing goals. She won the Explorer Women's division at the 2005 NSSA National Championships and began competing on the pro circuit in 2007, winning the T & C Surf Women's Pipeline event that year.
'Heart of a Soul Surfer' Doc and Reality TV
That year also brought the release of Heart of a Soul Surfer, a documentary that chronicled Hamilton's return to the water after the life-altering attack. The documentary helped inspire the creation of Soul Surfer, a 2011 movie about the event starring AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton.
In 2014, Hamilton competed on season 25 of The Amazing Race, delivering a strong showing before finishing in third place. She has also appeared on such shows as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Biggest Loser.
Additionally, Hamilton managed to retain her competitive edge in the water despite her busy schedule, snagging first place at the Surf n Sea Pipeline Women’s Pro event in March 2014.
Hamilton has sought to encourage a healthy lifestyle and share stories of her personal faith through speaking engagements, the nonprofit Friends of Bethany and a large social-media following. Her inspiring life became the subject of another documentary, Unstoppable, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018.
Hamilton subsequently launched her Unstoppable Year online course to help people overcome obstacles and achieve fulfillment.
After Hamilton began dating youth pastor Adam Dirks in 2012, the two were married in August 2013.
In early 2015, Hamilton announced she was pregnant and would soon be scaling back her busy schedule. She and her husband welcomed a son, Tobias, on June 1. Their second son, Wesley, was born in March 2018. The couple's third son, Micah, was born in February 2021.
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