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Surfer Bethany Hamilton’s Strong Faith After Shark Attack

13-year-old Bethany lost her arm in a shark attack. Would she be able to surf again?

Bethany Hamilton surfing after shark attack

The bedroom door opened at five the morning of October 31 last year. My 13-year-old daughter, Bethany, stuck her head in, her long blonde hair falling over her face. “Hey, you guys. I’m going out for dawn patrol.”

“Have a good time, Honey,” I said. “Remember, my surgery’s today. Keep me in your prayers.”

“Duh, Dad. You’re always in my prayers. Gotta go!” Dawn patrol—beach slang for an early morning run—is a big thing around our surfing household. Bethany went out most mornings, searching for waves, often with her best friend, Alana, and Alana’s dad, Holt. I joined them whenever I could. 

There’s something totally pristine and magical about the water at that time of day. The beach is empty, the wet sand shimmers in the rising sun. It’s just you, your board and the waves. There’s a little more of a danger of sharks in the water too, but if you surf in Hawaii, sharks are always a threat—remote, but real. The sea is their home, and you just have to respect that.

My wife, Cheri, and I work hard to make a good home for our three kids—Noah, 22, Timmy, 17, and Bethany. We are a close, loving family with God at the center. But at heart, we’re basically, well, beach bums. 

I’ve been surfing since I was 12. It was my first love. Cheri’s too. We’ve got saltwater in our veins, and so do our kids. There’s always sand on the floor of our house on Kauai’s North Shore, and a couple of towels drying on the porch out back. Are we rich? Not in dollars and cents. But we’re more than blessed when it comes to the things that really count.

I would have joined Bethany that morning, getting in a quick run before I had to be at work, if it weren’t for my appointment at Wilcox Memorial Hospital. All those decades of crouching down low to shoot the barrel of a big wave had taken their toll on my right knee. 

“You’re due for some scoping on your cartilage,” my friend David Rovinsky, an orthopedic surgeon, said. “We’ll get you fixed up and you’ll be back on your board in no time. Who knows, you might even be able to keep up with Bethany.” 

Yeah, right. No one could keep up with my daughter. I put Bethany on my board and took her out into the waves when she wasn’t even a year old. I bought her a surfboard when she was six. Right off the bat, there was something different about how she surfed. Bethany got a look in her eye when we were out there in the water—a kind of gleam that said: I want to be good at this. I want to be the best.

I’m a “soul surfer.” I do it for the pure joy I feel when I drop my board into a curl, the wave roaring in my ears like a jet engine. It’s a spiritual joy, to be so close to the beauty and power God has made. Bethany felt that joy too when she was out in the water. She loved the Lord, and she loved to surf. But she also set goals. Bigger waves. Faster times. She couldn’t wait to enter surfing competitions. I started to understand that glint in her eye. The flash and fire of a champion.

At a little after seven that morning I lay on an operating table. I’d opted for a spinal so I could be awake to watch the procedure on a monitor overhead.

“Okay, Tom,” David said. “Ready to star in your own reality TV show?”

David marked the spot on my knee where he would go in with the scope. Just then the door to the operating room flew open. A doctor stuck his head in. 

“Dr. Rovinsky, we gotta have this O.R. right now! We’ve got a shark attack victim.”

My mouth went dry. “Who?” I asked.

“A thirteen-year-old girl from the North Shore.”

My gaze met David’s. “Stay cool, Tom,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

I tried to jump off the table. No go. My legs were numb from the anesthetic.

David came back. His face was pale. “It’s Bethany. We’re going to get you out of this O.R. and she’s going to take your place. We’ll do everything we can.”

A nurse wheeled me down the hall into a small recovery room and left me there, alone. The room was dark and still. Outside people raced toward the O.R., shouting instructions. If only I could get up and go to Bethany, hold her hand and pray. In my mind, I pictured Bethany in the water catching a wave. 

My love for the ocean meant so much to me. To see my daughter love it too, to know she wanted to be the best surfer in the world, filled me with joy. But now that joy vanished. Was it my fault that she’d been attacked by a shark?

Stop. Cool it. Whatever happened out in the waves this morning, I had to remember that God had been there. He was here in the hospital too. With Bethany. With me. You’ve always watched over us, Lord. We’ve never come up against anything we couldn’t handle. Help us now.

The door opened. Noah. He walked in and threw his arms around me.

“Where’s your mom?” I asked.

“She’s outside, Dad. Everyone’s here.”

“Stay with them. I’ll be there as soon as I can get up and walk.”

Noah hadn’t said a word about Bethany, and I hadn’t asked. Something inside told me to stay calm, be patient. To trust in God—whose power was greater than my fear, greater than the sea, greater even than my love for my daughter. 

A nurse came by. “Mr. Hamilton, can you wiggle your toes?” I tried. They barely moved. I slapped my bed in frustration.

“Hang on. Ten more minutes and you should be able to walk.”

Ten minutes later she came back. I got up and the nurse helped me hobble down the hall to another recovery room.

Bethany was lying in bed, her hair matted from the water, an oxygen mask over her face. Monitors beeped and blinked. My gaze followed an I.V. line down to her right arm. Bethany’s a righty, I caught myself thinking. They should put that thing in her left arm. All at once I realized what I was looking at. Where my daughter’s left arm had been there was just a mass of bandages.

The image was like a hard punch in the gut. But then Bethany turned her head and gave me a groggy look. A flood of relief and pure gratitude poured over me. My daughter was safe. Thank you, God.

“Hi, Dad,” Bethany whispered. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been here the whole time, Honey,” I said. In fact, I had been right where I was meant to be all along.

Less than a month later, on one of those blindingly beautiful days that God saves for Hawaii, Bethany and I walked to the water. Under her right arm she carried her surfboard. She’d made a remarkable recovery, but I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t too soon to try surfing again.

Bethany waded in, hopped on her board and started for the distant breakers. I swam out behind, ready to lend a hand. Half of surfing is in the paddling. Bethany’s explosive stroke used to give her an edge in competition. Could she still do it? With only her right arm? Could she still surf like the old Bethany?

A wave broke. Bethany lost her board. She grabbed it just as another wave slammed into her.

“Do you need a push?” I shouted.

“No, Dad,” she yelled back. “I need to do this myself.”

I should have known better than to ask.

Finally, we got out past the breakers. A big wave came toward us. Bethany paddled and kicked like crazy, struggling to get positioned right. With one push of her arm, she leapt to her feet. Her board shot out from under her and she fell into the water.

Another wave. She paddled and jumped to her feet. Wham. Another spill.

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Lord, what if Bethany can’t do this?

A third wave rolled toward us. Bethany looked over at me. For a moment, our eyes met. That’s when I saw it. That flash of fire. It was still there. The wave rose up behind us, ready to break. Bethany leapt to her feet. She caught it perfectly. I watched her ride the wave all the way to the distant shore.

I had been wrong to doubt even for a moment. Nothing was going to hold my daughter back, not from what she truly loved. There was no “old” and “new” Bethany. Just the daughter I had always known. The one with the God-given spirit of a champion. And nothing, not even a shark, could ever change that.

Browse a slide show of Bethany!

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