The 19-year-old Hawaiian Bethany Hamilton dreams of reaching surfing's top flight this season despite losing her left arm in a near-fatal shark attack six years ago.
Riding the wave against all odds
Bethany Hamilton is living her dream. A young professional surfer travelling to the world's most beautiful surf spots on the women's World Qualifying Series tour (WQS), Hamilton would be the envy of many. She is also on the cusp of achieving her goal: to reach the ASP World Tour, the pinnacle of the professi-onal surfing world. But Hamilton's journey to the top has been anything but easy. As a 13-year-old, she lost her arm in a shark attack while riding waves in Hawaii.
Despite the trauma the American suffered on that October morning in 2003, she displayed the courage and resilience she is now famed for, returning to the waves just three weeks after the attack, determined to learn how to surf with one arm. Within months she was back up on her board. Joining the women's WQS, a springboard to the ASP World Tour, for the first time in the 2008 season, she narrowly missed out on qualification to the World Tour this year.
Hamilton started this season with determination, claiming a closely fought runners-up spot at the Billabong Junior World Championships in North Narrabeen, Australia, in January. Hamilton finished the tournament less than one point behind the champion French surfer Pauline Ado in a thrilling final round. Chatting about her ambition to reach the heady heights of the World Tour, she speaks with remarkable maturity and confidence. It is easy to forget Hamilton is just 19.
Her enthusiasm gives her away, however, as she trills about the sport she loves. Hamilton grew up on the waves of Hawaii and, along with her undoubted talent and determination, her traumatic experience in the water has thrust her into the limelight. She has already published a book, been the subject of an award-winning documentary, released lines in perfume, sandals and jewellery and will have her life immortalised in a blockbuster film.
"I'm really excited about it. There will be some beautiful surf sequences. It's going to be scary. It's going to be funny. "It will be very emotional and sad, but most of all it's going to bring an inspiring message," is how Hamilton describes the film, due for release next summer. It may sound like a dramatic tale, but the summary is a perfect depiction of the young surfer's life. In 2003, a 14ft tiger shark attacked as she paddled through the surf at her local beach, Tunnels Beach in Kauai, Hawaii, biting her left arm off at the shoulder.
Had the shark bitten just two inches further up her shoulder the attack would have been fatal. "I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a time I thought I couldn't surf again. Of course I did have moments," she said. "It was something I loved so much. I wasn't going to let this stop me from doing the thing I love. I really had the will to do it." Using a custom-made long board to make paddling easier, Hamilton adapted quickly to surfing with one arm, learning to pop up on to the board using her right arm and kicking hard through the water.
"There's no real technique I use. When I first started surfing with one arm, I just got used to how to duck dive, which was pretty hard. Once I'm up on the wave I can surf like any other," she says. "I didn't get up on the first try. I was out there for a while. I got up on the third try, maybe. When I got up just had that feeling when you know you've caught the wave, it's very special. It took a lot of work to get back to the short board and learn how to duck dive. It took a few months, but it was really worth it.
"One of the best moments of my life is when I got up on a board for the first time ever since the attack, which was on Thanksgiving Day. Even though it was a junk wave and long board, it still was the best wave I ever caught, because I did it. I cried happy tears." Hamilton credits her close-knit family and friends with giving her the encouragement needed to get back on the surfboard, as well as drawing strength from her faith.
"I really had good friends and my family to support and encourage me. Most of all I had my faith in God and I knew this was going to pull me through. I knew I could do this," she says. Six years on, Hamilton's hard work is paying off and she is taking the surfing world by storm. She may have missed out on qualifying for the ASP World Tour in her rookie season in the WQS, but Hamilton is confident she will soon claim her place alongside the world's surfing superstars, including nine-time men's world champion Kelly Slater and 2007 and 2008 women's world champion, Australian surfer Stephanie Gilmore. "I was pretty bummed not to make the ASP World Tour this year, but God has a plan for me so I go with it," she says.
"I'm really hoping it just wasn't my time then. I've been really practising and surfing more than I usually do. I surf most of the day. I'm really concentrating on what I want to do and focusing on my training. It really comes down to that and no one else or anyone else who pressures me. "I have a really good family and friends who keep me focused on it." Hamilton has battled to shake the label of "the surfer who lost an arm", determined instead to be recognised solely for her talent on the waves. Now, with national and international credits to her name, Hamilton believes she has proven herself to the surfing world and is beginning to feel at home with being seen as a role-model and American sweetheart.
"At first yes, it was just the 'girl who was attacked by a shark', but over the last few years it has changed. I always want to be seen as a surfer and I really am now seen as a surfer, but it's also more than that too," she says. "It feels strange being thought of as a role model, but because of what happened to me, I really want to bring hope and inspiration to people who need it. I hope I can do that for them. What happened to me was pretty bad, but I lived and I'm happy and I get to do the thing I love.
"I hope people who go through everyday troubles are able to see that you can overcome anything if you set your mind to it." The girl whose motto is "dream high, dream big and never give up" is 19th on the women's WQS leader board and has a good chance of making the cut this year. The top 16 men's and women's surfers make it through to the ASP World Tour. Following a spirited performance at the Hurley US Open in July, where she came third in her heat but missed the cut with a 8.67 score, Hamilton battled her way to the semi finals of the Oakley Rio Surf International in Brazil last week, before begin knocked out of the final four in a one-on-one tussle with eventual winner Australian surfer Jessi Miley-Dyer.
Hamilton now turns her attention to the Vans Hawaiian Pro on her home turf from November 12 to 24. A good performance in Hawaii could prove enough to catapult her into the realms of the world's top surfing champions. "My philosophy on life is to always have a positive attitude. It comes down to practising and believing. I know I'm good enough," she says. "Unfortunately it is not always up to me. It's up to the waves, up to the ocean, and God. I leave it in his hands. I have a dream and I believe I'll achieve it."