Surfing With Soul: Bethany Hamilton



Though some of us were half a world away, most of us heard about the devastating accident that took away one of pro-surfer Bethany Hamilton’s limbs. It was the national event that inspired the film Soul Surfer. Here is a story that not only affects our inner desire to conquer fear but gives us a young girl to watch achieve success despite the odds stacked against her.

Thirteen years old and on the verge of being one of her sport’s greatest athletes, the Hawaiian surfer lost her left arm during a day of surfing with her friends as a result of a shark attack. Eight years later, her story was brought to the big-screen starring AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany. The film chronicles the days prior to the attack, setting up Bethany’s carefree, happy lifestyle of surfing, church, and friendships before showing her journey to recovery, both physically and spiritually.

When news broke of this story I didn’t care much beyond thinking about the devastating effects it meant for Bethany because I wasn’t much older than her at the time and wasn’t interested in world news. Until she became a household name with book sales and a return to surfing, the story wasn’t treated with much media coverage. Now that I’ve seen the film and learned more of her journey, my opinion has expanded beyond that limited awareness. From that, I can’t help but wonder at how she lived her version of “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.”

In life, my philosophy is that we have to live. We can’t let fear dictate how we go about the act of living. We should use the mind God gave us to be smart and make educated choices but we shouldn’t cower away from living a colorful life. Life is a funny business. Sometimes it surprises us in the choices it throws at us, other times it leaves us trying to hang on to the metaphorical lifeboat. This is where Bethany found herself – given a challenge by life.

For a true story that is still relatable to today’s society (or to put it differently, this isn’t something that happened 200 years ago) Soul Surfer makes a compelling story that also happens to be a true narration of where determination can take a person. Like the outline of the story, the world of sports (specifically women’s) has grown in recent years. Anyone who watched the summer Olympics knows what a stir the U.S. women’s team made in all venues they competed in. They brought home over half the U.S. medals, and are making strides in and for their sport.

Although not in an Olympic arena, Bethany was one of those women making a name for her sport when the story begins. In the end, she has forever defined what courage, heart, and faith can achieve. To bring about her dreams after the accident, she had to have more grit and determination than her competitors. She inspired little girls everywhere and received millions of fan letters for her efforts. Though her story is one of the more moving ones because it inspires us all to face challenges and fears without flinching, it is also one that evokes mixed emotions in me. I do “get” the story’s inspiration but I do not know if had I been in Bethany’s shoes I would have been as anxious to get back on the waves. There are unwarranted fears and then there are fears that have a reason behind them. I sympathize with her wanting to be unafraid of the water and of surfing, and not wishing to associate waves with something so life-altering, but I do believe a healthy fear (in this case, of losing her life) is a legitimate one, and we should carry certain of those with us as practice of being smart.

Bethany’s platform is not just meant to inspire young people to never give up. By her own admission, she is a Christian. Her faith was instrumental in her recovery, both mentally and physically. Watching Bethany’s story come alive even in highly dramatized circumstances has revealed her as an admirable young woman whose faith was an enormous asset to her long and difficult path in learning to live her life and fulfill her dreams. Her initial optimism does wane once the reality of her limitability sinks in, and it takes a life-changing trip across the world to give her perspective. By her own admission, her loss is nothing compared to so many others.

A gift Bethany gives to America, for anyone who looks to her as a role model, is that though the near-fatal events that day took something from her (part of her physical mobility) nothing could take away her spirit and determination to emerge stronger than before the accident. I may not agree with her methods or some of her convictions but her journey to recovery taught her that winning isn’t always the best road—sometimes the real victory is in conquering fear.

The lessons she learned and the response she had to them is what makes her a champion. ■


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