“It’s not about how many times you get knocked down that counts, it’s about how many times you get back up.” Bethany Hamilton, 23-year-old American surfer, lived by these words after losing her arm to a shark attack at the age of 13. Having since turned pro in 2007, taking second place in the ASP 2009 World Junior Championships, this aloha spirit chatted with us about her love for surfing, the pressures of being a role model, and her struggle to reteach herself to ride.
How did you first become interested in the sport of surfing?
I grew up in Hawaii and my whole family surfed, so as a kid I was kind of forced into it — in a good way of course! I can’t even remember exactly how old I was when I first got on a board, but I think I was about seven or eight years old when I could really do it on my own. I won my first competition when I was eight. It was a smaller, local competition [Rell Sun Menehune] but still felt very exciting and fun to win at that age. As far back as I can remember I’ve been in love with the sport.
The shark attack happened when you were young as well — 13 years old. What is the biggest memory you have from that experience?
I like to focus on the positive in life and leave that experience in the past. I’m just very thankful that I’m alive. It has been such an amazing journey for me since then. I’ve been able to inspire others and help them overcome challenges like I did. It’s a testament to how something bad can turn into something beautiful.
Did you ever second-guess getting back out on the surfboard?
I wasn’t sure, but when I was in the hospital still recovering from the accident, a good friend of my brother’s, Mike Coots, came in to see me. He learned to surf again after losing his leg. That was my first inspiration. To be honest, I was more scared about losing surfing than I was about losing my arm.
It must have been a huge challenge to reteach yourself how to surf. What was the most difficult part for you?
Learning to surf was the hardest physical thing I’ve had to do and then having to adapt to one arm surfing — standing up and balancing on the board as well as paddling — it was not easy at all. I’d go out sometimes and have awful days, and then other rides would be great. But slowly it became natural for me.
What advice would you give to someone coming back from a life-changing injury?
I think no matter what you’re overcoming, especially if it’s physical, being thankful for what you can do is something that’s important to remember. Set goals that will help you get back to your passion, or even just get back in shape if that’s what you’re trying to do, and be persistent. Make it a point to surround yourself with people who will help you reach those goals, whether it is through coaching, support or just holding you accountable to your word.
Just two years after the attack, you took first place in the Women’s Explorer Division of the 2005 NSSA National Championships — your first national title. How did it feel knowing you had overcome such a tragic event and come out on top?
It was amazing. I never thought I would have been able to achieve that goal and that much success. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to live out my dreams. I’ve learned so much from traveling the world doing what I love.
And you’ve taught as well, becoming an inspiration for many athletes and individuals. How does if feel knowing you’ve given so many hope?
It’s definitely an honor being a role model, especially for young girls, and to be able to have my Friends of Bethany foundation, which supports shark attack survivors and amputees. And I try to be the best person, as well as athlete, that I can be. It’s hard these days — there aren’t always the best role models out there. My faith keeps me grounded and I try to make good choices in life. Plus, I have a good group of friends around me.
As far as training goes, how many days a week are you out on the board? Do you do any training off the board in the gym?
I surf just about every day, especially when I’m home. Sometimes I even surf several times a day when I’m home. On land, I do TRX and CrossFit workouts, focusing on posture and good form. These help me build and maintain strength, which boosts my confidence in the ocean, as well as in my daily life. I also practice Egoscue, which is a specific form of stretching. Lots of people overwork their body and don’t focus enough on stretching. I like to try and keep my body as healthy as possible. I play tennis, and go on hikes and runs when I’m able as well. There isn’t really an off-season for me because I surf all over the world.
What’s does your diet consist of?
Eating organic, clean, whole foods is important to me. I’ve also become a big fan of Zico Coconut Water, post-workout. I drink it right before I stretch.
Where do you go from here, Bethany? What’s next?
Well I got engaged in April, so right now, I’m just really excited about getting married. I’m focusing my effort on that.