Surfing had always been in Bethany Hamilton's blood. Her father, Thomas, and mother, Cherilyn, surfed, and even her older brothers, Noah and Timothy, seemed to both have a proclivity toward the sport. Surfing was something she was born to do, and for Bethany, there was never a reason to second-guess, let alone fear, diving into the clear, seemingly calm, crystal waters.
On Oct. 31, 2003, 13-year-old Hamilton paddled out to the North Shore at Tunnels Beach beside Alana, her childhood friend, and Byron and Holt Blanchard. Nothing about the surf that day was different.
While waiting for the next wave to roll in, Hamilton felt somewhat of a "tug"—the impact of a 14-foot tiger shark's jaws—on her left arm.
Nobody saw it coming.
Hamilton was rushed to the hospital, losing both her arm and 60 percent of her blood. The homeschooled teen—a girl who was once thought to have been on track for a professional athletic career—was catapulted into the spotlight and defined, in the media's eyes, as a shark attack victim.
"Just dealing with fame and becoming a girl and struggling with my body image and the media and this world that we live in is so incredibly challenging," said Hamilton during a recent interview at the Mall at Millenia. "It can really bring you down."
The Hawaii native continued to make headlines when she decided to return to the water within one month after the attack. Although Hamilton credited her family, particularly her father, for helping her get back on the board, she said the transition from two arms to one was far from easy.
"I think at first, adjusting to life with one arm was essentially really challenging because I was so used to doing everything with two arms, and all of the sudden, I'm relearning how to put my hair up and relearning how to surf," Hamilton said. "I remember trying to paddle out surfing and there were just waves crashing on me over and over again. Sometimes I would come in crying and frustrated and discouraged."
One year later, after months of training, Hamilton competed in and won the NSSA Nationals Surfing Championship, earning her first national title as an amputee.
"I think there was some sense of drive in overcoming the actual injury itself, and still having a very similar drive to my sport, but I feel like I'm the same me at the same time," said Hamilton. "It's just sometimes challenging with one arm, so having to overcome that aspect of it is like a whole other game in itself."
Fast-forward 12 years: The now married mother-to-be has a movie, Soul Surfer, based on her New York Times bestselling book, a documentary in the works, Surf Like a Girl, and, being a professional surfer, sponsorships. Her most recent sponsorship includes a Cobian flip-flop line.
"I've been teaming up with Cobian now for a while, and we started this 'Every Step Matters' campaign, which is kind of like getting other people to share their story of why we believe every step matters, because all of us have different steps in life — to choose or not to choose — and they can really impact our future," she said.
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As a part of her work with Cobian, Hamilton recently traveled to Orlando's Mall at Millenia to speak about her career and upcoming projects, and, of course, meet fans.
"Realistically, the thing about Bethany is that she is just a real person," said Greg Taylor, the Southeast Saws' manager for Cobian Sandals.
Taylor has worked with Hamilton in the past, and said she has brought so much more value to their company than just marketing sales.
"You got these girls that stand in line for hours to wait for her and they finally get there, she treats everybody the same. I mean, she's just a real person; celebrities can get a little bit flustered, and she's just really good and the same with every single person she meets in any event. I've never seen that. She really is the perfect role model."
Hamilton also opened a contest, asking her supporters to Instagram a photo and write about what inspires them using #EveryStep Matters. The winner, local Floridian Stephanie Farr, was selected to have a private breakfast with the champion athlete prior to the public event.
Farr retold the story that she shared with Hamilton about how her 1-year-old son, Toby, overcame all odds and inspired her faith.
"When I went to go get a normal ultrasound, they didn't see a part of his brain that was supposed to be there, and they told me, and you know, they kind of suggested for me to terminate and not continue (the pregnancy," said Farr.
She thought she was going to lose everything.
"I just started praying about it a lot, and he was born a perfectly, healthy little boy. So when I heard 'Every Step Matters,' I just thought of him, because without God and all His little miracles, he probably wouldn't have been able to walk, and so I wanted to share that story with Bethany because (my son) is my inspiration," said Farr.
"Bethany has also been an inspiration to me. I remember hearing her story when I was younger, and the fact that she's had to overcome so much and still continues to do what she loves—I can't imagine going through what she did, that she would have fears and things like that—and get back in the water. The fact that she did it without even thinking twice about it is such an inspiration. I wanted to meet her because she inspires me to do things that I think I can't maybe do."
Hamilton said, "I think for all of us there's hard times in life, and maybe we will not be facing them right now, it may have come to pass, or it will come in our future, and I think just know that you are loved by the people around you. Just knowing what God has for me—His promises and just reading the Bible—has so much wisdom and truth and encouragement for all us."