Bethany Hamilton: Triumph of a free spirit

In 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton's arm was ripped off by a huge shark. Weeks later she was back in the water. Now she's riding high. Andrew Martin meets her
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The Independent Online

There is a warning sign along the sandy track leading down to the beach: "LEAVE THIS SIDE CLEAR FOR EMERGENCY VEHICLES". Behind me, steep serrated green crags are stacked up like immense teeth. This is where it happened, I can't help thinking as I stroke out over the disturbingly shallow reef.

Here, at "Tunnels" on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, about 8am on the morning of Halloween, 31 October 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton was floating on her board in the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific, dreaming of the perfect wave, when a 15ft tiger shark knifed up out of the water alongside her. The great jaws opened then snapped shut. It swam away, having bitten off a crescent-shaped chunk of her red, white, and blue board and 90 per cent of Bethany Hamilton's left arm.

She was out surfing with her best friend, Alana Blanchard, and her best friend's dad. Blanchard senior ripped off his vest and used it as a tourniquet on what was left of the girl's arm and slowly, agonisingly, they guided her to shore. In the ambulance that took Bethany to the nearest hospital (nearly an hour away) the paramedics thought she had lost so much blood that she was going to die.

By an uncanny coincidence, her own father was in the operating theatre about to have surgery on his knee. He was wheeled out to make way for a terribly injured girl who had been out surfing at Tunnels.

Tom Hamilton knew then it could only be Alana or his own daughter. It was his worst nightmare come true, every father's worst nightmare, everybody's worst nightmare: Jaws, The Beast, Little Red Riding Hood. It struck a universal chord of horror: the next day a paper published a picture of the surfboard with the chunk bitten out of it.

Fast forward to today and go a few miles east, to the breathtakingly lovely Hanalei Bay. There are maybe a dozen guys out on a lazy 4ft day at the break known as "Pine Trees". And a girl. She is quite distinctive. As the woman who works at the Hanalei Surf Shop said to me: "You can't miss her. She's 15, blonde, and has only one arm."

Added to which, even in the fearsomely competitive Hawaiian waters, Bethany Hamilton is still the best surfer out there, grabbing more than her fair share of waves, and carving radical, aggressive lines into the face.

There's always something magical and mysterious about surfing: walking on water, rising to your feet and staying on them even as the wave is crashing down and trying to take you down with it. But to see a girl with one arm doing all of the above is little short of miraculous. She can still paddle after a fashion, using one arm and a foot dropping off the back of the board. And she has developed a technique of positioning herself right on the peak, in effect making a late take-off every time, dropping down the face and levering herself up by shoving down on a wooden handle strapped to the deck.

We have the kind of salty, halting, monosyllabic conversation, punctuated by passing waves, that you have in the water:

Me: "Good wave."

Her: "Thanks."

Me: "Liked your book."

Her: "Cool."

The book I refer to is called Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board. There are a couple of other monosyllables I think about uttering: one of them is "shark", the other, "God", and they both play a big part in the book. But one way and another I can't quite spit them out.

Back on the beach, she's surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of intimidating bodyguards: a crowd of other blonde 15-year-olds in bikinis. It was lucky I was standing there in baggy shorts or I may have been tempted to ask for an autograph. As it is, I awkwardly shake her by the hand. I come within a whisker of bowing.

Bethany Hamilton is a classic girl-next-door, tall and slim, shy, with streaky blonde hair, freckles on her face and braces on her teeth. Her conversational staples are "yeah" and "uh-huh". She lives with her parents, two brothers and a dog in a sprawling house with banana trees in the garden in the secluded village of Princeville that stands on the bluffs overlooking Hanalei Bay.

She likes to go to the cinema and one of her favourites is The Passion of the Christ. And she is, so far as it is possible to make out on the back of our brief encounter, stupendously unaffected by either the shark or the subsequent wave - the tsunami of attention she has received in America.

One of the first things she said, while recovering in hospital, was, "When can I go surfing again?" One of the second was, "Does this mean I'm going to lose my sponsorship?" Gary Dunne, team manager of the surfing company Rip Curl, flew from Australia to reassure her on that. Rip Curl has sponsored her since, at the age of 10, she started winning nearly every title that a 10-year-old girl can win. "Our ambition," he said, "is to see her surfing again just as well as she would have done without the bloody shark."

She got back in the water a bare few weeks after the shark-attack. Now she has her own coach, and she recently won an amateur National Surfing Association title in California (although she also went out early in the two pro-contests on Oahu, at Haleiwa and Sunset Beach). As far as Rip Curl was concerned, she could go on just as before.

But Dunne was not the only bedside visitor. Among the swarm of advisers and consultants who fell over themselves to offer their services, Roy Hofstetter stood out. A "Hollywood agent", with an office in Beverly Hills, he had white hair and a very smart suit. As far as he was concerned, everything had changed. Bethany was no longer a surfer, she was a potential "superstar". He went into overdrive and engineered a feeding frenzy among competing television shows. Soon the girl with true grit, the girl who never lost her faith even if she lost her arm, was on screens coast-to-coast. She was on Oprah. She was on Tonight and on a programme entitled Fearless.

Soon Hofstetter, talking phone numbers, had sold the film rights to her story to a major production company. And he even had her giving speeches to the troops, marines wounded in Iraq (although in fact she forgot her speech and took questions instead). "You could say that we have been hired by George Bush," he announced.

In Hawaii for the Rip Curl Pipeline Masters, Dunne said this week, "We didn't want to commodify her. We didn't want to go down the merchandising road."

But Bethany Hamilton has become a commodity. Her name is attached to merchandise. Already on sale is a "Bethany Fragrance" - with two lines, "Wired" and "Stoked", enticingly presented in surfboard-shaped bottles. Bethany jewellery is coming soon. Earlier this year her autobiography was published. She engagingly admits that, "I never wanted to write a book," but was talked into it.

Hofstetter was one of the persuaders. It took teamwork to get the job done. First she poured out all her raw feelings to her pastor at the Kauai Christian Fellowship, Rick Bundschuh; he then wrote down the first draft, which was conveyed to Sheryl Berk in New York, who had already ghosted the lives of Britney Spears (Stages) and Sopranos star Jamie-Lynn DiScala (Wise Girl).

I really do - as I said - like her book. All those vicious surfing metaphors - "rip", "carve", "shred" - are made shockingly literal. It's a fairytale, a myth that happens to be true, of being swallowed by the monster and making an amazing escape. It's little short of resurrection story, rising from a watery grave. And it is a good news story, of overcoming immense pain and suffering, of the inspirational kind.

There is a lot about God in it, too. God is not an add-on in Hamilton's young life, an embroidery stitched in by an over-zealous pastor. God saw her through her troubles and gave her the strength to get back on her board. The sceptical question I couldn't bring myself to formulate out at Pine Trees was: if God was keeping such a tremendously close and benevolent eye on you, how come he dozed off that morning at Tunnels?

I already knew her answer: it was the trial she had to endure, like Job, just as others, too, must endure theirs. In the US, in the 21st century, it was a tremendously powerful message. Hamilton was taken up by the evangelical lobby and put on show as a wounded born-again icon at a rally of 50,000 believers in Washington. She won not only an award for the best comeback but another for being "Most Inspiring Person of the Year". She had become Saint Bethany.

The Bethany Hamilton story symbolises a metamorphosis within surfing. In the 19th century, buttoned-up east-coast Puritan evangelists sailed to Hawaii and denounced surfing as a pagan exercise in idolatry only one notch below mass orgies and cannibalism. In the 20th century, surfing underwent a renaissance as the sport - not even a sport, more a statement, graffiti on waves - of the rebel, the anarchist, the outsider, a whole marginal subculture of alienated youth. In the new millennium, Christianity has shrewdly reclaimed surfing for itself.

Surfing has always been transcendental in spirit. But it had a dreamy, mystic, Zen flavour. Shaun Thomson, South African 1970s world champion, said: "Time slows down in the tube." Surfing was a hallucinatory drug and surfers returned to the beach looking as if they were still in a trance. But then it started to get mainstream and wholesome. Surfers, instead of being stubbly, dedicated losers from broken homes, became solid citizens with supportive parents. With the rise of the surf industry, they became athletes.

Now, as the writer Cintra Wilson scathingly remarked in her article "Jesus Christ, Personal Friend of Surfing": "Many [surfers] are big Jesus freaks, in a real Old Testament, Book of Jeremiah, the Apocalypse-cometh kind of way." There are Christian surfing contests. And a lot of people in surfing want to be Jesus Christ. Ex-champ Tom Curren has distributed Bibles on the beach (and, what's more perplexing, he signed them).

For Bethany, surfing is a form of prayer, a manifestation of faith. Cutting against the grain of the old surfing stereotype, she recently made an anti-drug commercial. She is a national hero, a latter-day angel, a synthesis of surfing, salvation, and cinema.

But Bethany always was and remains a serious long-term wave-user. She is the real deal, unfazed by trauma or celebrity. She has recovered superbly from her brush with the apocalypse and, given a few years, could yet make an impact on the pro ranks. She doesn't really need to pitch any message: she is the message.

They caught the beast that chewed off her arm and strung it up from a hook, its once terrible jaws hanging slackly open. But there are still plenty of sharks out there, not just in the water: especially not in the water. I hope she can out-surf them, too.