For Bethany Hamilton, Surfing Is 'An Escape From All The Chaos On Land'

Jul 14, 2019
Originally published on July 14, 2019 12:06 pm

When Bethany Hamilton was 13 years old she lost her arm to a shark while surfing in Hawaii. That event catapulted her into the public spotlight, from talk shows to a Hollywood movie based on her life.

Not only did Hamilton return to the water, but she went on to ride some of the world's biggest waves. Her story is told in the new documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.

"I've always been drawn to pushing myself into bigger waves ..." Hamilton says. "You're just kind of hanging on for dear life — but also tackling it with all you've got."


Interview Highlights

On what keeps her surfing

Ultimately I'm driven by my passion and love for riding waves. You know, so many people are like, "Why would you get back into the ocean with sharks?" and I'm like, "Well, I just have more fear of losing this love that I have for riding waves."

It's like my form of art and creativity and it's a place ... I'm completely immersed in what I'm doing and there's nothing kind of holding me back or distracting me I'm just enjoying this beautiful ride. ...

I realized, too, it's a place of healing for me. ... It's my place of escape from all the chaos on land. ... I can go and be refreshed and come back to my kids and be like, "Hey kids, like, let's build a Lego tower now."

Hamilton found out she was pregnant mid-way through filming Unstoppable. She continued to compete while nursing her infant son.
Aaron Lieber / Entertainment Studios

On pulling her name out of the running after she was nominated for a 2016 ESPY in the "Best Female Athlete with a Disability" category

So, yeah, my thinking was: I really didn't feel excited to receive the award. I never, like, view myself as disabled. I don't have a handicap parking space [placard] in my car, and I think that if I viewed myself that way I wouldn't be where I am today. If only the category had been just "Best Adaptive Athlete" I would have been happy to receive it. I have so much respect for all the people in that category, and who have received that award, but I just-- to me, the word "disabled" does not match my life, and who I am, and what I've accomplished and the way I go about every single day.

On becoming a mom

After I married my husband we were like, "Well, let's give it five years ... and then we'll talk about having a family." ... [When] I found out I was pregnant, I just did not feel ready for that, but I knew that, like, God's plan was better than my own.

On getting back into shape after childbirth

I didn't know what to expect. ... It was even harder than I thought it would be. I tried to give myself grace and patience but, yeah, motherhood is no joke. It challenges you in every aspect — mentally, physically — and you're just spread in every direction kind of thin. But it's also the most enriching, joyful, beautiful and empowering experience.

On the World Surf League committing to paying equal prize money to male and female athletes

It's a beautiful step in the right direction. Women are at the forefront of surfing right now ... and I'm super applauding the World Surf League. ... It's exciting to be a part of such an awesome sport that is leading that forefront.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We saw the U.S. women's soccer team soar to win the World Cup. And our next guest is also an inspiration to many people around the world. When she was just 13 years old, Bethany Hamilton lost her arm to a shark while surfing in Hawaii. That event catapulted her into the public spotlight, from talk shows to a Hollywood movie based on her life. But there's much more to this story. Hamilton went on to win major surfing competitions. She also started a family, continued to compete while nursing her infant son and pushed herself to ride the world's biggest waves. This is all told in a new documentary, "Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable." And she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

BETHANY HAMILTON: Thank you - glad to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to start by saying you have done so much in your career, in your life. But as a mom, I was like, this lady is out surfing in competitions and then coming onto the boat and nursing her son (laughter). I have to say women are so often told, kids will kill your dreams. And we believe it sometimes as women. And one of the big moments in this movie is when you first learned that you were pregnant and that it was unexpected. And I want to hear a little bit of a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETHANY HAMILTON: UNSTOPPABLE")

HAMILTON: ...'Cause I wasn't telling anyone. I didn't want to tell them crying. Yeah, I wanted to tell them with a smile.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about that moment in your life.

HAMILTON: Oh, that makes my eyes water just hearing it. Yeah. I always really looked forward to being a mom someday. And after I married my husband, we were like, well, let's give it five years and just hang out you and me. And then we'll talk about having a family. And I think it was about a year and a half. I found out I was pregnant. And I just did not feel ready for that, but I knew that, like, God's plan was better than my own. And I just - yeah, my husband and I just decided, OK. Let's do this. We got this amazing little one on the way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had to learn to adapt after the shark attack. How did that help you recover and train again after motherhood? Was it sort of the same journey?

HAMILTON: I think it was quite a bit different because I was only 13 years old. And a lot of my adapting and adjusting to life with one arm was more simple, like just standing on a balance board. But after motherhood, I learned about posture and corrective therapy movements to help keep my body in the best alignment for my sport and being tender on myself but still challenging myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BETHANY HAMILTON: UNSTOPPABLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She's out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what bookends this film is you surfing a wave in Maui called Jaws. It can reach 60 feet, and it is incredibly dangerous. And I have to say my heart stopped just watching you do it. For those of us like me who will never surf it, what does that feel like when you are facing that wall of water and you are going into that?

HAMILTON: Oh, my gosh. It's incredible. You know, I had a lifetime of preparation for that, and I've always been drawn to pushing myself in bigger waves. And trying to keep up with my two older brothers as a young girl was always just pushing myself. And, yeah, when that moment came and taking off on that wave, it felt like the most exhilarating, beautiful, powerful kind of moment experiencing nature in my entire life. And you're just kind of hanging on for dear life but also, like, tackling it with all you've got (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You just said you've always been drawn to pushing yourself. What is it that drives you? What - where does that come from?

HAMILTON: You know, so many people are like, why would you get back into the ocean with sharks? And I'm like, well, I just have more fear of losing this love that I have for riding waves. And it's like my form of art and creativity. And it's a place of just - completely immersed in what I'm doing. And there's nothing distracting me. I'm just enjoying this beautiful ride.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But do you know what's amazing watching you do this? There is a scene in the film where you're getting really beat up by a series of waves, and everyone's really worried about you. And they think you might really be in danger, and you come out of the water grinning.

HAMILTON: Yeah. I guess I'm just kind of built tough. I just hope to encourage this young generation as they're seeing this film to know that they can overcome. And they can be unstoppable too. And that's why I continue to share my story. And, you know, sometimes, I just want to, like, hide in my island home back in Hawaii and hide away from everything. But I realize our young people need stories to be told, and they need to hear inspiration and hope. And I could have made a completely different decision, and I could have been unwilling to try surfing with one arm. But I was willing to try, and look where I am today. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have surfed Jaws, as we mentioned. So what wave is next?

HAMILTON: There's actually a wave. It's Namibia (ph), so it's known for this incredibly long barrelling left, which - I know for people who don't surf, they might not understand. But it's definitely one I want to check off on my bucket list.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was pro surfer Bethany Hamilton. She is the star of the new documentary about her life - "Unstoppable."

Thank you so much.

HAMILTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.