Passion and bravery ensures no bail-out despite shark ordeal


SURFING/INTERVIEW WITH BETHANY HAMILTON:THE CHANCES of encountering sharks in the Atlantic waters off Bundoran are virtually zero, but, for once, Bethany Hamilton found herself flinching as she paddled out on her first surf in the northwest of Ireland.

The Hawaiian surfer was in Bundoran for the European Surf Championships last weekend, at which the film of her remarkable life story, Soul Surfer, had its premiere.

The film, starring Denis Quaid and Helen Hunt, opened generally at the weekend and tells of Hamilton’s scarcely believable life story, which was dramatically altered after she lost her left arm in a horrific shark attack while out surfing with friends on October 31st, 2003 at Kauai. She was 13.

Now, she is 21 and while surfing remains a core element of how she defines herself, it is Hamilton’s remarkable disposition and spirituality that distinguishes her. Even so, she admitted the unforgiving waters off Donegal tested her bravery to the limit.

“This was my second time here so I knew what to expect,” she said cheerfully on Monday morning in the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran.

“We came here to Bundoran and I met (Irish surfer) Easkey Britton so I knew about the area a little bit and I am supposed to have a long lost relative from around here. But I didn’t get in the water then – it was extremely stormy and cold.

“We are blessed with this trip – it is sunny right now. So it is good to see the different extremes in Ireland. We got some good waves around the corner from the peak. But when I got out of the water, my feet were turning numb and my hand didn’t have its full function.”

Hamilton gave the Saturday night film a skip, having already watched it several times at various premieres on both sides of the Atlantic. The project was, like many Hollywood films, slow-burning in pre-production, but Hamilton is delighted with the result.

“It has been awesome. The whole project involved a lot of work and I just wanted it to turn out true and authentic to who I am and who my family is and I feel it is that.”

Seeing her life story portrayed on the big screen has, she admits been “a bit odd”. But she was involved with the filming, striking up a friendship with AnnaSophia Robb, the actress who plays her and noting that Quaid, a devoted golfer, spent more time with a surfboard than on the fairways during his free time.

The story is ultimately about her response to the loss of her limb and her determination to persevere with her life – sporting and otherwise – along the exact same lines as she followed before that morning in the water.

But Hamilton, at a tender age, lived through a nightmarish scenario that probably crosses the minds of everyone who finds themselves in anyway deep ocean waters. Shark attacks are a possibility that surfers relegate to the subconscious. They are vaguely aware that they do happen and can happen but trust that they will never happen to them.

Hamilton’s reaction to the trauma of the event was immediately informed by a strong Christian sensibility which continues to guide her.

But her decision to return to the water almost as soon as the stitching on the wound healed was instinctive: she felt she would be lost without surfing.

Nonetheless, she admits her initial return to the water involved a psychic battle with the memory of the trauma and injuries she had suffered. She lost 60 per cent of her blood in the aftermath of the attack.

“My passion for surfing outweighed my fear of sharks or anything else that might stop me from going in there. I was so excited to be back in the ocean and once I did it I felt like I was back at home and where I felt comfortable. And definitely, once I began surfing the old surf spots, I did have to overcome my fear and to get back to my normal comfort level.

“And I definitely have done that since. I mean, sharks are everywhere and I think that they are beautiful creatures. I guess it is up to surfers to be willing to go out into their environment.

“But incidents of attacks are so rare that I don’t think that what happened to me should stop anyone from going out on the ocean.

“I think with every surfer it goes through your mind at one time or another, but it doesn’t really stop us from doing it. You know, we get in cars every day and there is a chance that something will happen but we do it anyway.

“And if you do get in an accident, chances are you get back in the car and drive afterwards.”

The moral courage Hamilton exhibited in the months after her ordeal was rare in itself. But it was matched by her athleticism. She had to use a slightly longer and thicker surf board in the beginning as she sought to recalibrate her balance and learn how to use her legs when paddling to gain sufficient speed to catch the waves.

Politely declining efforts of assistance, she relearned how to surf and just four years after losing her arm had achieved her ambition to compete on the professional circuit. She does all of the stunt work in Soul Surfer.

If there were times of disillusionment or anger at being victim to such an unlikely and devastating attack, they are behind her now.

Hamilton’s radiant persona and warmth has enabled her to transform what is supposed to be a debilitating setback into a positive story.

She published work about her life when she was 14 and soon found herself sitting on the sofa with Oprah and other prime time talk show hosts. From the beginning, she decided against using a prosthetic limb and has instead shown that the absence of her left arm didn’t detract from her quality of life or her ambition to progress as a serious surfer.

As recently as this summer, the dangers of her sport revisited her when she underwent surgery after the fin of her board cut the bicep in her right arm and caused nerve damage while on a surf trip in Indonesia. The accident bore immediate comparison to the shark attack.

But when she talks about the hours after that attack – simply getting her to hospital was an ordeal – she recalls that she felt little panic. “I have been blessed to know that God is in control of anything. Immediately after the attack I just had a sense of peace and I knew there was a reason for all this.

“And I just looked for the positive in things and the bright side of every single day and it is cool that what seemed like such a terrible event has turned into something beautiful and I am getting to do everything I wanted to do and more. And just to be able to encourage other people in whatever they are going through is amazing.”

Among the people she has spoken with were survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

“Yeah, that was an incredible trip, probably one of the best of my life to go to Thailand and to share my story with Thai people most of whom had not gone back in the ocean and still had an enormous fear of it. And to just give them a good time – playing in the ocean and teaching them how to surf, which I am sure was intriguing for them because it is not a very big sport there.”

Hamilton’s name and story has already transcended her sport and the more you listen to her talk about what she can do for others, the more hollow and shallow so much of big time, mainstream sport seems in comparison.

She has always pushed for greater equality for women in the traditionally male preserve of surfing and although she diplomatically allows that “the guys have always treated me with respect”, you sense she has more fiery opinions on the subject.

But they can wait for other days.

Her intention this week was to swap Bundoran for the more balmier charms of the Maldives.

“I definitely enjoyed Bundoran and the people were great. We saw some good surfing. But it’s been hectic. I need a vacation. It’s kind of a surf holiday.”