They came in droves, descending on the Hawaiian islands like a flock of tourists fleeing the harsh bite of winter. It was early February—a perfect time to seek tropical warmth. But tourists don’t typically tote $10,000 video cameras, dollies, boom microphones, or lighting and sound equipment. This group was different.
Hey, is that Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt?
And those girls on the beach—is that AnnaSophia Robb from “Bridge to Terabithia” and Lorraine Nicholson—you know, Jack’s daughter?
And look, over there! That’s not four-time Grammy Award winner Carrie Underwood, is it? She does movies now?
Yes, it’s all true. The large ensemble was actually a film crew from Hollywood.
The film crew itself was not breaking news. Thanks to its natural beauty, Hawaii has hosted many of movie sets over the years. Parts of all three “Jurassic Park” movies were shot there. Ditto for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Hook,” and many others.
But this crew’s mission wasn’t to film dinosaurs, famous archeologists or ill-tempered pirates. They came to tell an extraordinary true story of survival, perseverance and faith. They came to tell the story of one-armed surfing icon Bethany Hamilton.
“It’s been pretty hectic,” said Hamilton, a 20-year-old Hawaii native, as principal photography began. “I think the phrase ‘Hurry up and wait’ says a lot about it. But it’s cool to see everything come together.”
Come together... Yes, for the last 6-plus years, everything has been coming together for Hamilton in ways she never would’ve dreamed of or, quite frankly, wished for. But as she has discovered, God’s sovereignty stretches to all corners of the earth and into any situation, even the nightmarish ones that leave you desperately clinging to life. The Almighty’s fingerprints can be found in the rolling surf of the mighty seas, and, yes, even in the jaws of a shark.
Hamilton’s first 13 years were like a postcard—idyllic and picturesque. Her Hawaiian home is a worldwide vacation destination where heavenly sunsets and waterfalls transform even novice, 35mm-clicking sightseers into expert photojournalists. There were horseback rides and swaying palm trees and long walks on the beach. Best of all, there was a loving family.
Her parents, Tom and Cheri, raised Bethany and her two older brothers, Noah and Timmy, to love God and surfing. Tom and Cheri taught their children about God’s dominion over all His creation, and the evidence was readily available. Verses like Psalm 33:7 (NIV)—“He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses”—took on new potency as God’s power was on display daily outside her front door.
Under the guidance of her Christian parents, Hamilton placed her faith in Christ at age 5 and became quite active in her youth group at North Shore Christian Fellowship Church in Kilauea. Also under their guidance, Bethany climbed on her first surf board as a toddler. By age 7, she could catch a wave without help, and by 13 she placed second at the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) national championships. A new surf queen was emerging—one who could show the world the love of Christ through the power of a surfboard.
Then came Halloween.
“She’s got an unbelievable platform with girls in the surfing community,” FCA’s Joe Matera said of Hamilton pictured above (L) with Matera’s daughter Claire.
On the morning of Oct. 31, 2003, Hamilton was surfing her home breaks on Kauai’s North Shore with her best friend, Alana Blanchard; Alana’s father, Holt; and brother, Byron. She was lying flat on her board when it happened. There was no dorsal fin knifing the water, no pulsating Jaws theme in the background—only a strange tugging sensation on her left arm. Then, a horrific mixture of disbelief, shock and pain as the clear, blue water turned crimson.
A 14-foot tiger shark had severed her arm and taken a huge chunk out of her board. Alana and Byron rushed over, applied a makeshift tourniquet, and paddled Hamilton to shore where she passed out while waiting for the ambulance. In all, she lost more than 60 percent of her blood.
At the hospital, Hamilton underwent several successful surgeries. She lost her arm just below the shoulder, but her life had been spared.
While others might have been too afraid to return to the ocean after a traumatic experience like that, Hamilton wasn’t. She returned to the water just three weeks later and quickly learned how to surf one-armed with the help of custom-made boards. Then, a mere three months after the attack, she placed fifth in the open women’s division of an NSSA competition on Oahu after declining an offer from tournament officials to paddle out five minutes before everyone else. She wanted no preferential treatment.
And none was needed. By 2005, she won an NSSA Explorer Women’s Division national championship and began competing professionally, winning the O’Neill Pro Junior.
Now a full-time pro, Hamilton competed in more than 10 events last year, placing third in October’s Oakley Rio Surf International in Rio de Janeiro, a five-star World Qualifying Series event. While this year’s schedule has been interrupted by the filmmaking process, she still turned in a top-10 finish in the Billabong Association of Surfing Professionals World Junior Championship in Sydney, Australia, in January.
“The surfing world is still impressed and inspired by her,” said Becky Hamilton, Bethany’s sister-in-law and personal assistant. “It’s remarkable. But here’s the thing: She already had the talent and the passion. She knew how to do everything with two arms, so, as soon as she figured out how to do certain things with one, she was right back where she left off.”
Divine irony is a mysterious thing. Hamilton now has a gospelsharing platform that she never would have with two arms. It’s a testament to the handiwork of a loving Heavenly Father and His unique, divine plan.
“In early October 2003, my mom and I started praying and asking God to use me and show me His purpose for my life,” Hamilton said. “So, after the shark attack, I accepted that God allowed this to happen to me for a reason.”
After the attack, international media raced to Kauai. Hamilton’s story was featured by “Inside Edition,” “20/20,” “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “Oprah,” “The 700 Club,” and People and Time magazines, among others. She won “Best Comeback Athlete” at the 2004 ESPY Awards and similar honors from the FOX Teen Choice Awards (2004) and USA Today (2005). Her TV appearances include MTV, ABC Family’s “Switched” and FOX’s “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” She has thrown out first pitches at Oakland A’s and New York Yankees games and graced billboards for The Foundation for a Better Life.
The attack has brought unconventional commercial success, as well.
“All of my daughters have the Bethany Hamilton brand perfume,” said Joe Matera, the national director of FCA’s surfing and skateboarding ministry. “There are signed Bethany Hamilton posters on the walls of our house. The girls have done Bethany Hamilton reports for school. She’s got an unbelievable platform with girls in the surfing community. She’s a hero and a major role model.”
Hamilton’s 2004 autobiography, Soul Surfer, has sold nearly 1.5 million copies. She also has two devotional books, a four-volume Soul Surfer fictional series and a 30-minute DVD documentary, “Heart of a Soul Surfer.” And “Soul Surfer,” the feature-length film being shot in Kauai, is scheduled for release in theaters in 2011.
“My hope for the movie is just that more people will be inspired to overcome the challenges in their own lives,” Hamilton said. “I want people to see where my hope and strength comes from: Jesus Christ. And hopefully they’ll consider having a relationship with God, too.”
Ironically, the attention Hamilton has received since the attack is the one thing with which she feels most uncomfortable. Asked what her reaction would’ve been seven years ago if someone had told her that she’d be the subject of books, movies, TV appearances, cosmetic products, etc., she said, “I’d probably just laugh—or cry.”
But Hamilton’s heart lies in making an impact that goes beyond the commercial success. She supports a long list of charities and organizations, and, in 2005, she traveled with World Vision to Thailand to help children who were orphaned or injured by a massive tsunami. She visited a U.S. military base in Germany to share her story with soldiers wounded in Iraq and, in 2008, stopped by an FCA event to sign her books for young admirers. And her greatest satisfaction since the attack, she said, is “hearing how God has impacted so many people through it.”
Funny how things work out. Some world-changers are dynamic, type-A individuals whose sheer force of persona commands attention. Others are laid-back surfer girls who are pushed (somewhat hesitantly) into the public forum by life-altering adversity.
Hamilton never asked for any of this, but she’s trying to be faithful with what God has given her.
“I think He’s teaching me about grace and patience and to be bold about sharing my testimony,” she said. “It’s truly humbling, but a blessing to have been given a platform to share my faith. God just opened up the door for me to talk about His love to people all around the world rather than what would have otherwise been just the surfing community. It’s pretty cool.”
Wise words from a true “soul surfer.”
Surf's Up, FCA!
Now in its second year of official ministry, FCA Surf is riding a big wave after launching a new Web site in January. And along with the new site comes a fresh idea for outreach: FCA Surf clubs.
The clubs offer two different options: school surf clubs, which are recognized as official school clubs and operate like FCA Huddles, and community beach clubs, in which guys, girls and adults come together for Bible study, prayer and surfing.
“We used to be limited to just surf camps,” said Joe Matera, the national director of FCA Surf and Skateboarding. “With these FCA Surf clubs we are taking the model of FCA Huddles and opening it up to the surfing communities. They provide so many opportunities because they can reach out to the community while changing the face of what surfing looks like to a particular town.”
Along with the surf clubs, another new aspect of the ministry is the “FCA Surf Girl” Web site, which is designed to positively influence the female surfing community. Included among the site’s features is the testimony of musician and surfer Jessica McLean, who inspires women to lead active lives and seek out a relationship with God.
Said Matera: “We want to change the expectations the world has for women and really give girls the chance to be girls and let them know that God loves them from the inside out.”
For more information on FCA Surf, visit fcasurf.org.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Joe Matera; © Noah Hamilton