HONOLULU (AP) — It’s a feat that few have the bravery or physical ability to attempt: taking on one of the world’s most dangerous waves while competing against the best surfers in the sport.
But Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm to a shark at age 13, charges the waves. Now 26, she knocked the top-ranked female surfer out of the competition during the World Surf League Fiji Women’s Pro last month, inspiring even her fellow competitors.
“I’ve had a lot of successes in surfing, and I think so much of it is your attitude, and keeping your hope alive to do what you love to do,” said Hamilton, whose story captured the world’s attention when she returned to competitive surfing just 10 weeks after losing her arm, a tale recounted in the 2011 movie “Soul Surfer.”
These days, Hamilton is focusing on raising her son and filming a documentary about her life that tells what she calls the untold story of her career, including challenges she faces not only surfing with one arm, but also returning to competitive sports after giving birth.
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The trailer for the film “Surf Like a Girl,” which Hamilton says will be released next spring, opens with her graciously turning down offers to help tie a shoelace or load her surfboards into the back of a pickup — all things she’s learned to do one-handed.
“Nobody wants to be seen as helpless, and once you can master something like tying a shoe, you just want to be seen as normal,” said Laurie Romano of the New York-based National Amputation Foundation, which works with veterans and others who have lost limbs. “She’s a real role model.”
Powerful waves and shallow reefs are the type Hamilton grew up surfing on in Hawaii, and she doesn’t shy away from the challenge.
“Ever since I was a young girl, and adapting to living with one arm, especially surfing, I had a lot of determination, and I just kind of put my head down to just figure out a way to do it,” Hamilton said. “Slowly but surely it became normal for me.”
Hamilton has a handle on her surfboards to help “duck dive” under big waves, and she positions herself closer to where the waves will break so she can catch them by taking half as many paddle strokes as other surfers, putting herself at greater risk of being pummeled by the waves.
The conditions at Cloudbreak — the name of the surf break where the Fiji competition was held — are so dangerous that one section is nicknamed “shish kabobs,” because if you’re caught between the powerful waves and the shallow reef you’re going to get skewered.
Jessi Miley-Dyer, Women’s Commissioner for the World Surf League and has known Hamilton since she was 12 and traveled with her on surf trips when the two were sponsored by Rip Curl, selected Hamilton as the “wild card” for the Fiji event, knowing she excels surfing challenging reef breaks.
Hamilton got some cuts on the reef before the competition, but went on to compete and take third place.
Kelly Slater, an 11-time world champion in men’s surfing, praised her performance on Instagram, saying anyone who isn’t impressed by her physical attributes after losing her arm should check their pulse.
Suggesting that everyone should try surfing with one arm at the most difficult surf breaks, Slater wrote: “I’m scared to try it myself and ridiculously impressed with her talents.”
Hamilton’s story is among those that inspire fellow amputees, said Susan Stout, president and CEO of the Amputee Coalition of America, which includes coaches who help amputees re-learn to play golf or excel in rock climbing.
“The experience of limb loss is a major trauma in a person’s life, and it’s no small thing to live through that experience, the trauma of that experience, and then to excel in a sport again,” Stout said.
Follow Cathy Bussewitz on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbussewitz