Bethany Hamilton On Faith, The Shark Attack, Motherhood & Shredding Monster Waves at Pe’ahi
SURFING WORLD MAGAZINE | ISSUE 380
Faith, Motherhood & Shredding Monster Waves at Pe’ahi
At 26, Bethany Hamilton has seen a lot more of life than many of us will ever experience: a brush with death, global fame and the terrifying view from the crest at Pe’ahi. Because these things happened early, she grew up in the gaze of the world’s media and remains suspended in time, for some, as that teenage girl. But she’s as interested now in her roles as a wife and mother as she’s ever been in surfing. At the tail end of her recent Australian trip, she spoke to Jock Serong in Torquay about adapting, motherhood, religion and… just briefly, Trump.
SW: What’s brought you out to Australia?
BH: Rip Curl put together this trip mainly to promote my new film, Surfs Like a Girl. But you know I really haven’t surfed here – I’ve surfed one day, so I’m keen to get home.
What can you tell us about the new film?
Surfs Like a Girl is a deeper look into my life, specifically the surfing aspect. I hope it continues to share more of my life on the side of my passion and talent for surfing. I think it’ll be really fun to share with the surfing world and also the non-surfing world, as I have such a broad reach with both. So me surfing and being a mum and continuing to surf professionally…
At 26, you’ve now been surfing longer with one arm than you did with two. In fact, it’s been the longer part of your life. For the rest of us looking in from the outside, it feels like the attack and the publicity around it, things that are actually quite a long way back, don’t necessarily feel that way. We wonder how all the adapting in your life is going, which is ridiculous when in fact it’s been the majority of your life now. Do you hear that a lot, that people feel like it happened yesterday?
Oh yeah, I feel that will be a part of Surfs Like a Girl – life beyond the attack. So many people just think of me as – I mean, I did a bunch of media this week and they still just wanted to go back to the attack. And I’d actually say ‘no, I’m not here to talk about that’, and there’s so much positivity to talk about beyond it. Physically adapting to life with one arm, it’s definitely normal for me. There are still some challenges, like obviously being a mum with one arm and adjusting to that has had some challenges, but it’s so do-able and going into motherhood, alot of the things I was scared of were almost silly in a sense.
There was a comment on a thread I saw where someone was talking about you changing a nappy on a squirming baby with one arm…
Yeah (laughing) that was my biggest fear – changing his diaper! And there were a couple of moments where I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is so hard,’ and he was running around with poop on his butt, and I couldn’t stop that, but that’s whatever, that’s life! I’m sure there’s two-armed mums that can’t keep their kid down…and the biggest challenges in parenting aren’t even the physical aspects, it’s keeping sane and raising your kid in a good way that leads them to become a decent human being. That’s the challenge, it’s not the physical aspects. It’s so funny how you can get caught up in the physical aspects – all my greatest fears were those things like being able to change his diaper, holding his head steady as a newborn, and all of that was so adaptable and do-able.
You seem to be a magnet for labels – shark attack survivor, role model to girls, motherhood, the comeback, all of these things – do some of them grate?
I think if I got caught up in paying so much attention to the labels it’d drive me crazy. I kinda ignore ‘em.
The labels are useful to an extent, aren’t they, in creating a profile?
Yeah, I do get it. I’ve experienced so much media since I was thirteen, so I understand some of the thought processes. I think the media sometimes could put a little more thought into how they do things, but I suppose in such a fast-paced world they’re doing the best they can… they just do what’s fast and easy and will capture attention.
Reflecting on Fiji, you beat Tyler Wright, who’s now World Champ: was that a pretty fantastic time?
Oh yeah, I had a blast. I’d received a wild card to Lowers the September before, which was about three months after I’d given birth, so it was a fast transition into competition, and I just remember having the craziest nerves. I couldn’t calm myself down, and I had a really bad event. So going into Fiji I was still carrying over some of those nerves but I really wanted to just put that aside. The first heat was a little rough for all of us, and Nikki ended up winning. So when it came down to just Tyler and me, it felt really good: beyond beating Tyler, more like beating my own nerves.
Is that typically you, to be nervous? It doesn’t seem so.
Um, I think when I’m not competing as frequently it comes in. I’ve always known I can do well in world tour events, but I’m not a very consistent competitor and I have a lot of ups and downs. Other people may not have paid attention to that, but to me, I know in my head – okay I want to do well and finally be able to compete in really good surf, because it’s so much more fun. So being in Fiji it was like a motivation just to be able to keep surfing heats out there with no-one around, because even the free-surfs are crowded. Everyone’s there trying to get a wave.
It seems like there’s a great spirit on the women’s tour at the moment – a lot of great friendships.
Yeah, I think so. I mean Fiji was especially fun – everyone seemed to enjoy each other and have fun. It’s the funnest competition you could ever be in, because everyone there’s having a blast on vacation and Fiji’s beautiful and the waves are good and it’s a fun event to be a part of. Compared to surfing at Lowers, where everyone’s all spread out and it wasn’t as much of a camaraderie feeling, though it’s a fun wave too. All the girls at that point are halfway, and they start to feel more pressure about qualification.
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And lately, you’ve been moving into another realm, surfing Pe’ahi?
I paddled Jaws last winter and that was the scariest session of my life. So when I got invited to compete I put some thought into it and it just wasn’t the right decision to say yes. Mainly because I haven’t put in enough time out there yet. And an hour is not enough time out there, with the added pressure of competing.
It’s obviously a huge wave, but is it a very technical wave? Are there major differences in the way you approach it?
Yeah. It’s so different from any other type of surfing. You have to turn around and start paddling so far in advance of actually catching the wave. So that was a big adjustment. And for me to compete out there I’d have to put a lot more time in to feel confident. I was out there with the Walsh brothers and they were coaching me into them and I caught waves. It was super fun and amazing and scary, so I know that not having them there coaching me would be so daunting.
Is that the only way to learn a wave like that, to be talked through it by someone who knows?
No, I think you can put time into it, you build your time. I’ve surfed other big waves at home but Jaws is definitely really different and a daunting wave. It is fun – an amazing experience and a challenge. The swell was dying but it still held a lot of size and there weren’t a lot of people out so it was a pretty cool experience being able to surf it uncrowded. I’ve also towed it – I towed when there weren’t guys paddling and it was windier.
The ESPY awards – you said no thanks to the Best Female Athlete with a Disability nomination.
I initially thought okay, ‘I’m up for Action Sports Athlete of the Year’ and I was really stoked. But then I wasn’t, and I was like, ‘oh well, it’s not really an award I would want to receive’ because that’s such a bad term to be put under in my mind. In my mind I don’t think of myself as disabled. Compared to most of the world I’m incredibly able. So many people in the world can’t do a third of the stuff I do. I’m not trying to compare myself to them, but the way my mind processes it I don’t think of myself as disabled. I wrote ESPY a letter and said ‘Hey, I’m very able and so are a lot of the women in this category. If anything, you should change the name to Best Adaptive Athlete.’
That little episode in your life is a great example of your ability to teach people, because those differences in language are so important in what they say about the athlete.
And I feel like I’m continually learning how I perceive myself or other people, and being respectful. But also taking in the good: people will say weird things too, and being able to let go of that. So that to me was really weird and it wasn’t an award I wanted to receive, so why would I allow myself to be nominated?
So taking the same argument further, surfing goes into the Olympics in 2020: if you were given an invitation to participate in the Paralympics, would you say no to it in preference to the main event?
I’ve been thinking about that. To be honest I don’t know if there’s any competition that…surfing’s such a unique sport. If I’m going to compete, I want to have tough competition. I want to surf against Tyler, Steph and Carissa, so I don’t know if I would do the Paralympics. Unless they let me go in the men’s division, but even then I don’t know if I would have much competition. It’d be kind of hard because I’d feel like I’d want to be in the four-limb category.
So you would see an invitation to the Paralympics in the same light as what you saw with the ESPY Awards?
I don’t frown upon them. It’s awesome that they have Paralympics. Especially with swimming, it’s clear that if you’re going for a time, it’d be pretty hard for me to be at the same speed as a four-limbed swimmer. But surfing’s so unique – once I’m up and riding, I’m somewhat equal in most conditions, so I feel like it comes back to the sport itself. Even surfing being in the Olympics at all – I’m stoked, but at the same time I’m like, man, if it’s crappy waves it’s so unenjoyable to celebrate an Olympic champion who won in half-foot closeouts. I want to be cheering on the fact that surfing’s in the Olympics if it’s at Pipe, and they’re going to crown the OIympic champion at such an incredible wave, or even Lowers, but it’ll be interesting to watch and I’m sure that over time they’ll evolve something. I feel like having the Olympics in a wave pool would almost be better. For the general public, they’d be able to soak it in a little better. It could be that Kelly Slater has three goes on this wave, like in the half-pipe, and they take their top two scores – that’d be pretty cool and everyone just does their thing, as compared to who caught the least closed-out wave.
Do you feel acutely conscious of being a role model to young girls?
Naturally, yes, because I meet so many young girls all the time. I feel thankful, but it has that pressure that comes with it, a healthy pressure though – especially now I’m a mum, I wonder what’s my son going to look towards as a positive influence in his life, beyond his mum and dad? And it feels even heavier now. Man, I would way rather my daughter look up to me than, say…(she names a name and then reconsiders) there’s people out there who my daughter or son could look up to who I don’t consider appropriate, even though they are considered maybe role models, like say Justin Bieber.
So you must, in the back of your mind, be conscious of being the best person you can be because there’s so many eyes watching.
Sometimes, yeah. But at the same time I feel like I have grace on myself and I know I can’t be perfect, and sometimes I don’t want to take the photo and I’ll say no, if I can’t handle it at that time. Or if someone comes up at an odd moment I’ll happily say no and it’s okay – you don’t have to please every single person that you cross paths with. They don’t always understand, but for me I feel like it’s okay.
What do you want those girls we talked about to see in you?
I feel really blessed by my faith as a Christian, and knowing that’s been the thing that’d got me through the darkest of times in my life, I would want them to be encouraged by that same feeling. But that isn’t necessarily what’s going to stick with them. So seeing that young girls, through tough challenges, they can overcome and do great things. That’s how I’d break it down.
You live an intensely physical life: it’s great for young girls to see that example of being really physical.
Yeah, being healthy is how I’d determine it. The Friends of Bethany Foundation – there are photos of you doing camps with limb loss groups. That must have been a really positive and fun thing to do. Oh yeah. Out of all the events I’m a part of apart from surfing it’s my favourite. Specifically we do the Beautifully Flawed event, which is a girls’ retreat for amputee women. It’s pretty cool, there’s so many amputees who are charging and they’re not so well known, but they’re doing really cool things or they’re going about life like… normal people (laughs).
I thought it was interesting that you and Mick Fanning – you’ve both got your own crossover appeal into the non-surfing community anyway – but in both cases that’s been boosted because of encounters with sharks: that people have this morbid fascination with sharks. That kind of salacious interest has to be fairly frustrating doesn’t it?
It is definitely interesting – one of my favourite things to be called is ‘Oh, you’re the shark girl!’ And I’m like (rolls eyes) ‘Yeah thanks, that’s me!’
Does that mean that you’re constantly called upon as an expert on sharks, just because one bit you?
Well, I probably do know a little more about sharks than most people.
Do you have strong views on their conservation, or the problems on Australia’s north coast, for instance?
I don’t have really strong views, because I think it’s such a hard subject to deal with and at the end of the day I do care more for people than for sharks. But I also don’t feel good about killing sharks.
Would you describe yourself more widely as a conservationist? Is it a topic that interests you?
No, I don’t consider myself a conservationist, though I like to speak up if I’m put in that position. You should look up Mike Coots – he’s definitely a shark conservationist. He speaks up. I know I’m not, because he is, and he’s very outspoken and he’s doing lots of things to help out against the shark finning industry. But yeah, part of me wonders if the bigger issue is really the fishing industry and whether the amount of fishing that’s being done is done in a sustainable way, and whether that’s having an effect on sharks, or if they’re just hungry and they eat whatever comes across their paths.
What about the election? Are you worried for your country?
I don’t really like talking about that. But I guess my view is, either way it was just a sad election, and the country needs some changes. I just hope they’re not too drastic, the changes in the next four years, and we can hopefully get through it. That, and we have some decent candidates for the next one. But I wasn’t personally a big fan of either, and everyone was so shocked that Trump won, but even if Clinton won it still wasn’t going to be a great thing either. I didn’t realise how Aussies have paid a lot of attention to this, they’re very…people are so upset about Trump winning, and as awful as he is, Clinton was pretty awful too. So it’s evil verses evil and who was going to take it out… it’s a tough one.
At times like these, do Hawaiians feel quite separate, or do you feel as American as the mainlanders?
It all comes down to the individual. There are lots of Hawaiians, actual blooded Hawaiians who are drawn to the idea of being a USA citizen. But I think Hawaii’s pretty involved.
Can I ask you a little about religion?
How do you define yourself religiously – you’re a Christian, but are you a particular kind of Christian?
Yeah – I actually haven’t been asked this before but I’m a Lutheran. So it comes down to different doctrines or understandings of the Bible. Different interpretations, as there are some aspects of the Bible that are harder to understand. My husband and I and some of our family have been Lutherans for four years now.
Does your faith have a doctrinal base, or is it more about just trying to live a good life, without being too specific about teachings?
Yeah, it’s definitely doctrinal. I’d say in recent years I’ve taken a lot of joy in understanding what so many people would say: ‘Jesus Christ died on the cross for us’ – for many people that doesn’t mean anything, there’s no understanding behind it. But breaking it down to ‘he’s died on the cross for our sins’, so mankind is full of sin and in need of forgiveness, so I take a lot of joy in knowing that in my imperfections and my wrongdoings, to not take that grace for granted, but there’s a grace on that part of my life and that’s such a blessing to me if that leads me to be faithful and live a life that’s hopefully the best I can be.
Is churchgoing something that’s suffered because of your travels?
Yeah, we definitely don’t go to church as much when we’re on the road, but that’s okay, I cherish church but my faith is still there with or without church.
So what are the practical demonstrations of your faith when you’re on the move?
We pray together as a family and I’ll read the Bible and certain devotionals, and teaching our son certain aspects of the bible. And I co-authored a devotional, so young girls have a “Bethany Devotional”. In the faith-based world, girls have got to be encouraged in their faith. And I think for young girls it’s a daunting world to live in – there are so many ways to be influenced, or to be pushed in certain directions. I think to have faith is such a blessing, in a somewhat faithless world.
Can you explain some of the peak moments in your life, like surfing Jaws, or the attack itself, or any of those instances, the way your faith interacts with it? What happens?
I think in my shark attack, so many people would be like ‘oh my gosh, a thirteen year old girl lost her arm, why would God allow that to happen?’ They may be prone to blame God or be angry at God, but having the perspective of forgiveness of the sin of the world – all the pain that we may face in our life is a result of sin, so rather than blaming God we’re blaming sinfulness. I don’t know what your beliefs are, so I’m, trying to break this down as best I can…
I don’t know either…
I think even as a thirteen-year-old girl I had faith, and I believed that God strengthened me in my faith to trust that he had a plan for my life and was going to help me through it. And I believe God did help me through it. I can’t imagine going through that same circumstance without faith, although I know that people do, and they do overcome. I look at the shark attack as... yes, it was a scary, daunting moment and there was a lot of pain that came with it, but at the same time I think so much good has come out of it too, and I was able to get through it and hugely through my faith.
In that moment, or looking straight down the barrel of Pe’ahi, at such times what is the conversation between you and your God?
Well, I can’t say that I’m talking to God when I’m taking off on a wave. But I think God has given me my passion for surfing for a reason, and it’s just part of life. It’s awesome to have passions that we work towards. Now I’m a mum and that’s my role in life and I want to honour God the best I can and raise my son in a good direction. But yeah, I wouldn’t say I necessarily talk to God as I take off on a wave. I can go through a whole session and I just surf… I appreciate God’s creation, so I look at it as being thankful that I get to explore it, whether it’s on a hike or catching a wave.
So surfing’s not necessarily a religious business for you?
That’s interesting. I suspect for a lot of the populace, who aren’t particularly religious, the only time that they do become spiritual is when they’re surfing.
I know, yeah! I’m sure people suspect that I feel more spiritual in the ocean, but I don’t. I feel really grateful, it’s a release for when I’m stressed out and have a lot of pressures and I can go and escape and have some ocean time and just naturally being physical – people are addicted to it for a reason: it’s healthy for our bodies to move.
You’ve been back on the world tour of late, there’s the dabbling with Pe’ahi, there’s motherhood… where’s it all going at the moment? Do you see a plan?
I always make goals and plans, but right now a lot of them have already happened. I’ve had a lot of dreams and goals come true. It’s cool, but I’m really excited to have more kids, so that might change some of my goals. I can’t wait to just expand my family and I’m sure that will change things in a beautiful way.
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