She was a member of the "dawn patrol." Every morning before sunrise, Bethany Hamilton, a 13-year-old and one of the country's top female amateur surfers, would follow the pull of the turquoise water and head to a favorite reef, to defy gravity on a wave.
"She's aggressive and a really good surfer," said Alana Blanchard, 13, her best friend and fellow champion. "She pushes me and I push her."
But Friday, while the two girls were surfing with friends off the island of Kauai at Tunnels Reef, a legendary spot that has bred some of the world's best surfers, Hamilton was bitten by a shark. She lost her left arm in the attack, believed to have been from a 14- to 15-foot tiger shark, the most dangerous species in Hawaii. Blanchard's father, Holt, 49, who was surfing with them, swam Hamilton to shore and fashioned a tourniquet out of his rubber surfboard leash. Hamilton is in stable condition at a hospital in Lihue. It was the fourth shark attack in Hawaii this year.
Speaking by telephone from the hospital, Bethany's father, Tom, who is a waiter at the Princeville Resort hotel, said his daughter's spirits were high, bolstered by visits from her teammates and her North Shore Community Church youth group.
On Friday, Hamilton, Blanchard and their friends were about 1,000 yards off the beach, in calm water on the far side of the reef. The shark broke through the surface without warning and vanished, taking Hamilton's arm just below her left shoulder and creating a 16-inch-wide bite in her red, white and blue board.
When the shark struck, Blanchard recalled, Hamilton calmly said, "I got attacked by a shark," and started paddling. "It was strange, she just made a statement," he said. "She was the only one who saw the shark."
Blanchard bound the wound with his Lycra T-shirt, and Hamilton, who was conscious throughout the ordeal, held on to his leg until they reached the beach, where he fashioned the surf-leash tourniquet.
Dr. David Rovinsky, the orthopedic surgeon who has been treating Hamilton, said that had Blanchard "not had the presence of mind to make the tourniquet, she wouldn't be alive." She has about a 4-inch section of upper arm bone remaining. Losing an upper extremity is more complicated than losing a lower one, or an arm below the elbow, he said, and it is too early to tell what the options are, although that will become clearer in the coming months. "It will be an ongoing process," he said. "She'll figure out for herself what she can do."
Which could involve surfing. On Sunday, for the first time since the attack, Hamilton talked about wanting to surf again. Her best friend expects no less: "We're going to get her back on a shortboard," Blanchard said.
Rovinsky said that surfboards and prosthetic devices could be modified for Hamilton, and that "she'll be able to do 95 percent of what she wants to do."
"She's an extremely strong woman," he added. "Knowing Bethany, it's not going to slow her down too much."
In this rainy, out-of-the-way town, Hamilton's trauma is an attack on a communal daughter. Since the early 1960s, when surfers and hippies fled here from the crowded waves of California and Oahu, the stunning reefs and bays of Kauai's north shore have nurtured some of the world's top surfers.
This is a ragtag, bohemian place where surfing is basketball, football, baseball and soccer rolled into one, where toddlers in water wings surf tandem on their parents' boards, and some schools signal the end of classes not with a bell but with surfing music piped through loudspeakers.
Among the many girl "groms" here, as child surfers are called, people talk about Hamilton as a shoo-in for stardom. Among the members of her competitive surf team, she and Blanchard had already earned sponsorships from surfwear companies. Like practically all young surfers here, many of them pre-orthodonture and prepubescent, she is the child of surfers. Most important, perhaps, Hamilton represents a new generation of powerful young women surfers who joyfully meet the challenge of taking on huge, barreling waves on a little bit of foam and fiberglass. When she surfed, friends say, she squealed with delight.
"The personality expresses itself inside the wave, and hers was just blossoming," said Suzanne "Bobo" Bollin, 55, summing up the feelings of many who came here on a lark in the early '70s and stayed. "That girl has saltwater in her veins."
In a sense, Hanalei is a company town in the business of surfing. Although Kauai, the northernmost of the eight major Hawaiian islands, is less famous for its surfing beaches than Oahu, it is known among die-hard surfers for its wide variety of waves, from sand-bottomed beginners' breaks like Pine Trees to more fearsome ones like the Tunnels and Cannons. Hamilton, who is a "goofy-foot" surfer _ the surfing equivalent of being left-handed, pivoting with her left foot and leading with her right _ could tackle them all.
Hamilton, who took second place earlier this year in the National Scholastic Surfing Association's national championships in San Clemente, Calif., beating women up to twice her age, was following an impressive wave of homegrown, world-famous surfers. In the past decade, Kauai has become "a hotbed of surfing talent," said Sam George, editor of Surfing magazine. Among the local stars are Titus Kinimaka, one of the most respected all-around surfers; Keala Kennelly, 25, known for her fearlessness; and especially Andy Irons, 25, the reigning world champion.
To children in and around Hanalei, Irons is the hero next door, whose presence is akin to having Michael Jordan to shoot hoops with after school. Among Hamilton's teammates, half of whom are still in elementary school, Irons is the target of a game they gigglingly call DD&D, for "Ding Dong and Ditch," in which they ring the doorbell and then quickly run away, only to return five minutes later to ring again.
To Hamilton's teammates, who wear two-toned, glue-on fingernails and puka-shell necklaces, becoming professional, while admittedly a dreamy prospect, is less important than the role surfing plays in their lives day to day, especially on this small island where the one bowling alley and two movie theaters are at least an hour away.
"You get to be with your friends and catch really good waves," said Nage Melamed, 9. "The water is really cool, and you don't hear your teachers telling you to do your homework."
Like parents everywhere in America, moms and dads here follow their kids' sporting exploits with video cameras. Unlike soccer moms, however, surfing moms and dads here excel at their children's sports _ sometimes instant-replaying moves that need work.
"The ocean is different every time you get into it," said Joi Bonaparte, 45, the girls' coach and mother of a professional surfer, Dustin Barca, 21. "It's such a thrill when you drop into a barrel, deep in a wave, as it comes over you in a cylinder," she said. "Our whole community feels that way."
Hamilton's own precocious trajectory, including coveted and potentially lucrative sponsorships from Rip Curl USA and four other companies, mirrors the growth of the sport among young women and marketing of its accoutrements, a subculture portrayed last year in the film Blue Crush. Surfing is now a $1-billion-a-year industry, George said, fueled in part by female role models like Lisa Anderson, a four-time world champion.
Professional female surfers remain few _ only about 25 worldwide, compared with several hundred men _ and when promising young stars like Hamilton and Blanchard emerge, surfwear companies eagerly supply them with clothes, surfboards and travel expenses for competitions on other islands and the mainland. "Bethany represented a new generation of young women who never had to fight a stigma," George said. "Girls Bethany's age have been empowered by the whole women's surfing movement."
Hamilton's second-place National Championship trophy is prominently displayed in her hospital room in Lihue.