A shocking loss led to life-changing opportunities for this homeschooled surfer girl.
On October 31, 2003, like many of you I was reading the news online when a headline caught my eye. A young girl, surfing off the coast off Hawaii, had lost her left arm in a shark attack. Thinking how I would feel if this happened to one of my daughters, I stopped to pray for her.
Fast forward four and a half years. A PR agent mails me a copy of theconGRADulations! Class of 2008 grad gift. It features some soft-spoken comments and surfing footage of . . . that very same girl, Bethany Hamilton, who it seems is now a surfing champion.
What’s more, I discover Bethany is being homeschooled.
I had to find out more, so I contacted the press agent. She promptly sent me a copy of Bethany’s DVD, Heart of a Soul Surfer. I put it into our DVD player and my whole family watched in amazement as Bethany’s tale unfolded before us.
An Amazing Resolve
While still lying in bed, with her arm recently bandaged, 13-year-old Bethany was smiling at visitors and quietly pondering her future. She had always wanted to be a professional surfer, but would it be possible to surf at all with just one arm? And would she have the courage to go back in the water again?
The answer to the second question was a big fat ”Yes!“ A surfer since before she could walk, Bethany determined to surf again if she possibly could. She would just trust God for the outcome, as she had been doing all along.
Once the media found out that Bethany planned to try surfing again, it became what her dad, Tom, describes as a ”full-on media onslaught.“ Bethany, who is actually rather shy by nature, didn’t enjoy the attention, so she and her family holed up at a friend’s house. There they had to ”pray and decide,“ says Tom. ”Do we want to go forward and share her story with the world? Or do we just want to shelter Bethany from all that?“
As a Christian, Bethany saw she had a great opportunity to minister to others, thanks to all this publicity. So, in spite of continued shyness, she determined to press forward and make the most of these opportunities.
In the meantime, she couldn’t wait to start surfing again. While the bandage was still on her arm, she ventured out again, on an easier-to-use longboard. The first two times, she couldn’t get up. The third time, she rode the wave in to shore. After that, it was just a few weeks later until she was back on her usual short board (this time, with a special grip her father designed to help her ”duck dive“ under waves on the way out).
Six months later, Bethany made the National Scholastic Surf Association (NSSA) finals and took fifth place in the ”Girls 18 and Under“ category.
The next year, she took first place.
Since then, Bethany has continued to compete, working her way up the ladder. This year, Bethany’s personal goal for the season, announced in January, was to ”finish with a ranking in the top 30“ of the World Qualifying Series (WQS). Only the top three women in the WQS get invited up to the next level: the World Championship Tour. Bethany began the season ranked 41. After the July US Open event, she has advanced to #10.
In the midst of all this, Bethany has been keeping up her education. She started homeschooling around age 7 or 8. Initially enrolled in an academy with very strict deadlines, in later years she moved to a more flexible, distance-learning curriculum. (In point of fact, American School.) This has worked well for her competition schedule.
A word about her family. Both dad Tom and mom Cheri moved to Hawaii when single, so they could surf. This explains both the extraordinary amount of support they have given to Bethany’s surfing, and quite possibly where she gets so much talent!
Thinking about living and surfing in Hawaii, you may think the Hamiltons are rich. This is far from the case. Tom works as a server at a fine dining restaurant, almost always at night. Cheri worked as a banquet server for many years, during the day. When they started homeschooling, she cut back to part time or less. Brother Tim makes bodyboarding videos. Brother Noah is a photographer who took the photos for this article!
Now that Bethany has a mini-business with her DVD, etc., it’s still a family affair. Her publicity person, Becky Baumgartner, is dating her brother, Noah. Her agent is another family friend.
Today, Bethany travels widely, both surfing and speaking. She has been to South Africa and Indonesia. She has appeared on Letterman, Jay Leno, Oprah, 20/20, the Today Show, and many others. Everywhere she goes, Bethany has the same message:
”I had a choice to make-either follow God or give up on life. I chose to follow God and so much good has come from that and through this ordeal. I’m challenging you to choose whether you’re going to give up on life or give God a chance and let Him work through you.“ What a message. What a girl.