Bethany Hamilton: ‘My fear of losing surfing was greater than my fear of sharks’ | Graham Russell

Bethany Hamilton has no regrets. She tells the audience almost nonchalantly: “I lost my arm but I wouldn’t change it.”

It’s this kind of line that explains why the cinema hosting a Q&A session with one of the world’s best-known shark attack survivors is filled to bursting. “I had a sense of peace after the attack. Faith helped me through,” she says as a notably young crowd looks on. “Adult me is like: ‘Whoa how did I do that?’ It was a childlike faith.”

Seventeen years ago, a 15ft tiger shark took the left arm of the surfing prodigy at age 13, and people have wanted to know her story ever since. Her resilience, and successful return to competitive surfing just a few months later, have made her an idol to many. She has been on every chat show and in every teenage glossy magazine. She freely admits she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show without knowing who Oprah Winfrey was.

We are sitting on the sand at Avoca beach in New South Wales, where a 30-year-old Hamilton has just been knocked out of the Central Coast Pro at an early stage, months after breaking her elbow while skateboarding. Not a good start to 2020, a year in which her main ambition is to make it back on to the Championship Tour, surfing’s highest level. With her young family playing around her, she remains calm despite the setbacks, and we talk about her new film, Unstoppable, and the year everything changed.

Notably absent in the film is a fear of going back in the water, something she did within weeks of the attack. Was it ever a concern? “Yeah there was subtly that but … I think most normal surfers that aren’t overly fearful, they don’t paddle out every time with a deep fear that they’re going to be bitten. Even though I have been attacked, my fear of losing surfing was greater than my fear of sharks.”

Unusually in a professional athlete as driven as Hamilton, she agrees she has had more impact as a survivor rather than as one of Hawaii’s best surfers. “Oh most definitely,” she says. “I didn’t set out my life to have a great impact or anything but it is really beautiful to see all the good that’s come from what seems like such an awful thing.”

Bethany Hamilton surfs Jaws in Hawaii

Bethany Hamilton surfs Jaws in Hawaii. Photograph: Lieber Films

One of those good things is the new portrayal of her life. The plan was to make a punchy 10-minute action film to promote women’s surfing. Seven years later, the result is Unstoppable, a 100-minute documentary in which Hamilton tells her own story, right from the start.

“The reason I made it was just to go surfing and push myself in the sport and hopefully push women’s surfing,” she says. “And then just kind of along the way a lot of things have happened and the director was like, ‘Can I please make a documentary?’ and I was like, ‘Sure go for it as long as we have a strong say.’ I think it turned out amazing and really captures my whole life thus far in a way that any other portrayals of my story haven’t … plus it’s the real me.”

The project took on a new life, literally, when Hamilton became pregnant with her first child a year into filming. She is quite frank about not being ready for motherhood, and director Aaron Lieber does not shy away from showing the many mountainous challenges Hamilton has faced, and the faith that helped her overcome them. So she seems better placed than most to understand why there is suffering in the world. “[God] doesn’t say that life’s going to be easy peasy and perfect … to think that we are not going to have trouble sets ourselves up for mental struggles and the fact is we are all going to face hard times. When I lost my arm I was just thankful to be alive and that propelled me to have a more positive mindset.”

Bethany Hamilton

Bethany Hamilton is open about the challenges she faces in her documentary Unstoppable. Photograph: Lieber Films

Her determination to avoid getting mired in anger or self-pity had a ripple effect, and set the tone for the rest of her family, too. “My dad was really angry when I lost my arm but eventually he got over that and saw that I was still just eager for life,” she says. “He clung on to the purpose of ‘Wow if my daughter thinks she can surf then I think she can, too, and I’m going to support her’.”

That backing, from her parents, two brothers, and wider surf family, got her into the water weeks after the 2003 attack, and inspired her father, Tom, to fashion a special handle for her surfboard to help her duck dive under oncoming waves.

Hamilton prides herself on putting out an “honest version of me” in Unstoppable, and there is little that appears confected in it. There may not be much need when you are paddling one-armed into 60ft waves at Hawaiian big-wave spot Jaws. The genesis of it as an action movie is clear, with visits to Bali and Tahiti to experiment with aerials and riding barrelling, heavy waves.

Yet, even with Hamilton’s evident skill and influence, she admits finding it hard when there is too much testosterone in the water – a reflection on how far surfing has yet to go when it comes to equality in the water. “Even this week it’s been such a struggle just to catch waves in the line-up with all the guys. And there’s a lot of times I’ll paddle out in the line-up and it’s clear that there’s just kind of a disconnect in that sense of [being] a gentleman,” she says. “It’s sad because it also forces the women to put up this [makes angry face] just to get a wave. And I will literally just cut off guys because I’ve waited my turn and they didn’t have a sense of decency.”

Bethany Hamilton takes on the crunching waves at Teahupoo in Tahiti

Bethany Hamilton takes on the crunching waves at Teahupoo in Tahiti. Photograph: Lieber Films

This kind of openness about everyday struggles forms another part of Hamilton’s enduring public appeal and burgeoning career as life coach and motivational figure (her “next big passion project”), particularly to teenage girls. She is surprisingly relatable, despite an existence lived by so few.

She still encounters people offering to help after taking one look at her (“I’ve learned to say yes. Just because if someone wants to help, at least they’re being kind”) and finds the everyday struggles – rather than monster waves – the hardest, including raising Tobias, four, and one-year-old Wesley.

“It’s mentally taxing every single day, just being a steady mum or wife or friend and just dealing with family and all that. Probably the harder thing in life is maintaining healthy relationships. I’m really thankful for my husband and my boys and my family,” she says. Even Hamilton faces the occasional struggle getting her boys to enjoy the water. “You can’t just expect every kid to fall in love with the ocean at five years old and have no fear.”

Bethany Hamilton with husband Adam Dirks and youngest son Wesley.

Bethany Hamilton with husband Adam Dirks and youngest son Wesley. Photograph: Agustin Munoz/Lieber Films

She is also honest about her mistakes, which usually involve having on too much on her plate. The one piece of advice she would give new mothers is “give yourself a proper postpartum recovery”, something she learned after taking up a wildcard opportunity to return to top-tier surfing just seven weeks after giving birth.

Hamilton has lived more than half her life in the public eye, and encountered fame at an early age, all stemming from a single incident, yet she refuses to let it define her.

“I don’t think it does [define me] but I can’t change what everyone else thinks. A lot of people can’t help but set their minds on the drama of life but for me it’s like my life is so much more, especially now being a mum and wife and just the beauty of family and my faith in God and surfing. There’s so much to life to just focus on one little moment … or one big moment even.”

  • Unstoppable is available to rent or buy online and is screening globally at special events. See here for more details.

  • Screenings are being held across Australia from 13 March. You can book tickets here.