It's a story that never ceases to amaze; American surfing pro Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a tiger shark attack when she was just 13 years old, and never hesitated to return to the water and the sport she loves so much.
The surfing icon’s new documentary, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, reveals her determination and motivation to return to professional surfing, not by the thrill of the competition, but by her love for the ocean.
Hamilton is also coming to New Zealand next year for the inaugural world surf league event in Piha.
“I've just been setting my sights on putting a lot of my efforts towards competing next year in hopes of qualifying for the women's world surfing league tour,” Hamilton says.
She told Jesse Mulligan she’s always had a sweet spot for New Zealand and looked forward to coming for a second time.
“I've been there one time before, but my husband and I have been dreaming of coming back but we really want to come on more of a non-surfing trip sometime where we can just explore the country a bit and enjoy the beauty.”
Every wave is a new challenge for Hamilton, and that’s exactly what she enjoys the most about it.
“Every time you go up there, it's new from the time before … And it's so challenging, but so rewarding and just the adrenaline rush that you feel as you're riding a wave and being able to just be in the beauty and calm.
“But sometimes it's not always calm. Sometimes it surprises you and is intimidating and can just kind of put you in your place and keep you humble. So yeah, I guess it always keeps me coming back.”
But it’s been quite the road to come to this point, Hamilton’s documentary records her recovery from after the attack, how she overcame challenges along the way, and her transition to motherhood. She says she wants people, especially young women and mothers, to be empowered by her message.
"I believe storytelling is such a beautiful way to inspire and encourage everyone out there.
"I just think our young women are facing so much more now than ever with all the different media and cell phones and social media, and there's just so much influences. I hope to inspire this next young generation of girls and even the boys too."
Hamilton says she’s had to make some difficult adjustments since getting back on the board. But she’s handled it all like the pro she is.
"I got back on the big longboard and then slowly worked my way back down to shortboard [and] just positioning in the lineup was key and being able to pop up on the surfboard.
“I had to move my hand in the center of the board and … my dad put a handle on my surfboard just so I could better grip the board when duck diving.”
Since then she’s managed to taken one of the most notable surfing breaks, known as Jaws at Pe'ahi. She describes it like a mountain in the form of a wave that was about 40ft.
"I just kind of had re-centered my life and focus on reaching some of my surf goals and surfing jaws was one of those.
“It's one of the most beautiful, powerful, intimidating waves in the world, and I had the pleasure of surfing it. So if you all see Unstoppable, you'll get to enjoy the beauty of that wave and me taking it on.”
But she’s now also having to nurse her one strong arm, which she has been key to her deep pedaling skill among other things – after an attempt to pop an ollie on a skateboard in front of her boys went wrong. It’s now broken, but she says she’s been laying low on it and is taking it all in her stride.
"It's actually been a good time for me to just grow my hunger for the ocean. I found that as much as I don't like being out of the ocean, my hunger for it just grows and I have a fresh excitement every time I have a bit of a break."
Focusing on the future
Hamilton hasn’t looked back since the attack and only gone from strength to strength to get back her normal life, instead of moping around and pitying herself, she says.
She’s also up to facing her fears by going back to the scene of the attack and doesn’t believe people should fear sharks.
"I really think sharks are such a beautiful creature and so [don’t] live your life in fear of them, because I don't think that's the way we should.
“If you're gonna spend your life being scared of sharks, then you might as well be scared of everything because it's such a rare thing to happen.”
Nevertheless, she says it was important to share that journey through the documentary because it was a key moment that shaped her life.
"It's really exciting to just continue to share my journey in surf and everything I'm up to now and pushing women in surfing and kind of raising my abilities to be considerably one of the best female surfers in the world.”
Empowering young women
Pushing boundaries is something Hamilton is no stranger to, even outside of surfing. She says becoming a mother was a game-changer for her.
"I love sharing that because I think a lot of women struggle with uncertainty. Like what life will be like after, and so it was an honour just to be able to share that part of my life.
And she’s now advocating for young women to follow suit in helping them realise their full potential via her online course Live Unstoppable.
"My heart for it was kind of help people to live their version of an unstoppable life.
“I'm pretty active on social media, but I'm not hugely fond of it. I think it can be a really dark and debilitating place for many of our young people especially.
“So I wanted to create a space that was safe, but also empowering and uplifting and personal, and where I could really dive into life deeper and all the challenges that we face, but also share all the tools that I've learned or the skills that I have that have helped me to live my life in the way that I have.”
Another message she wants to share with young women is not to allow public pressure on body image get to their heads.
At the end of the day, being healthy, staying active, and eating nutritious food are important for everyone but finding the middle ground is key, Hamilton says.
"I celebrate my body because of its abilities and things that I can do. I can birth children, I can ride waves really well and I can do so much more. But yeah, I celebrate myself for who I am and the life I live.
“So [it’s about] just helping girls to find their focus and just a healthier identity state versus kind of just living a life of comparison or unrealistic goals of just having the perfect physical physique.”