Bethany Meilani Hamilton-Dirks rose to fame when she survived a horrific shark attack which ended up costing her her arm. Despite this event, she managed to turn her trauma into an incredible story of triumph. This is her story.
Born to a Christian family in Lihue, Hawaii, the blonde beauty is the youngest of three siblings. Bethany lived a wonderful life full of surfing until at only 13 years old she was bitten by a shark which left her left arm severed just below her shoulder, changing her life forever.
Bethany began surfing at a young age, and by 1998, she was already competing professionally. At the tender age of eight-years-old, Bethany came first place in the Rell Sun Menehune surfing competition. From this time on, she continued to achieve great success from her surfing abilities and came in first place ni several competitions. Her tragic attack occurred in 2003, and while the shark bite would be severely debilitating for the surfer, Bethany was not going to let this stop her from doing what she loves.
The Shark Accident
Disaster struck on October 31, 2003, when 13-year-old Bethany went for an early morning surf. Joining her best friend, Alana Blanchard, and her family, the group went surfing along Tunnels Beach, Kauai at around 7:30 am. It was during her swim that Bethany was lying on her surfboard, surrounded by numerous turtles, and her left arm was dangling on the side of her board in the water. Unbeknownst to her, a 14-foot-long shark was fast approaching and soon caught her off guard.
Emergency Assistance Required
Bethany had no time to escape by the time the tiger shark attacked her, and suddenly her left arm had been severed just below her shoulder. She was assisted by the Blanchards to help her get back to shore, and Alana’s father then created a tourniquet out of a surfboard leach to wrap around what was left of her arm. She was immediately rushed to Wilcox Memorial Hospital, by which time she had already lost 60% of her blood and had gone into hypovolemic shock.
Her Dad Happened To Be At The Hospital
The early hours of the accident meant that a doctor had to be called to the rescue and rush to the hospital. Fortunately, the doctor was living in a hotel nearby and could make it to help save Bethany. However, in a strange turn of events, her father was already at the hospital when Bethany was brought in. This was not because he had been notified about the incident, but because he had knee surgery scheduled at the hospital for that morning.
In this moment of emergency, Bethany took her father’s place in the operating room. The surgery was successful, and Bethany had to stay in the hospital for a week to recover before eventually being released. After her release, Bethany garnered a lot of media attention for her miraculous recovery, and the world wanted to know what happened to the surfer and what was to come. She recalled that at the time she was bitten she did not feel much pain but soon became numb.
Fear Of Losing Her Sponsor
When Bethany is asked about the attack, her response is probably not as expected. She recalls how she kept calm even when she realized what had happened and states, “I think I figured out that, like if I panicked, then things wouldn’t go as good as if I was calm. I was praying to God to rescue me and help me. And then, I had this one pretty funny thought, I think. I was thinking, I wonder if I’m going to lose my sponsor.”
The Shark In Question
A shark had been killed a mile away from where the attack had taken place, and after the story of the attack broke out, investigators were presented with a photograph of the 14-foot-long shark that had been killed. A family of fisherman led by Ralph Young had caught and killed a tiger shark close to where Bethany had been, and found surfboard debris in its mouth, prompting him to believe this could have been the same shark that attacked her.
The Shark Was Killed
When it was found that the measurements of its mouth matched Hamilton’s broken board, it was confirmed that this was the same shark that attacked Bethany. Police officials made the announcement in 2004 that confirmed that the shark that was killed was the same shark. This incident, however, did not turn Bethany away from her favorite sport, and despite the trauma, she was determined to get back on her surfboard. After one month had passed following the incident, Bethany was back in the water.
Back In The Game
With a new custom-made board, which assisted her right arm with a handle to help paddle, Bethany was ready to take up surfing once more. Without her left arm, she learned to kick more, and before she knew it, she was ready to compete once again. It was less than a year after the attack that Bethany entered her next major competition on January 10, 2004. Since returning to compete, she also began to use standard competitive performance short-boards once again.
Only Passion To Surf
Many people may have questioned how Bethany could have returned to surfing after such a tragic attack, however, this was Bethany’s childhood dream. “I’ve wanted to become a professional surfer since I was eight. For a little while when I was in the hospital after the attack, I thought I wouldn’t be able to ever surf again. That didn’t last long. I have a deep passion for surfing, and I was determined to keep going – arm or no arm. And I did; with God’s help.”
Bethany’s whole ordeal would be enough to keep anyone away from the ocean forever, but her determination and love of the sport was a truly inspirational story. So much so, that after the attack the surfboard that Hamilton was riding when the shark attacked her is now on display at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, California. Alongside her old board, the bathing suit she was wearing, a gift she got from photographer Aaron Chang, is also on display for visitors to see.
Rise To Fame
The same year she returned to compete in surfing competitions, she won an ESPY award for Best Comeback Athlete and the Courage Teen Choice Award. Bethany also made a name for herself in the media and started to make guest star appearances on several television shows. She eventually starred in the film, Soul Surfer, which was, of course, all about Bethany’s story. The film was produced by her manager, Roy “Dutch” Hofstetter who made Bethany go from shark attack victim to an inspirational role model.
Her television guest appearances have been on some of America’s highest watched shows including The Biggest Loser, 20/20, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Today Show, and The Tonight Show. While these appearances were sure to make Bethany a recognizable face, she also featured in magazines such as People, Time, and American Girl, and was the cover story in the premier issue of niNe magazine. Bethany had gone from surfer to celebrity.
Following Her Faith
In 2004, Hamilton’s book, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, was published by MTV Books. The book discussed the ordeal from the year prior, and years later, the story was turned into a film. Her story was also the focus on a “faith-based documentary” film, Heart of a Soul Surfer, directed by Becky Baumgartner. As a devout Christian, the documentary addressed her faith in Jesus Christ in the aftermath of the shark attack.
The Family That Surfs And Prays Together
On her family, Bethany says: “My family is great. We are all very close. We all love the Lord, and we love surfing. We love each other very much and can pray together as well as goof around together. We are not always perfect and can get tired and grumpy with each other. But the Holy Spirit helps us to stay on track. We love to play practical jokes and have a good time. Our family motto is “The family that surfs and prays together stays together.” Amen!”
Life After The Attack
When asked how the attack had changed her, Hamilton expressed: “I am more deeply committed in my love for Jesus and take my relationship with him more seriously than ever. I realize that God loves everyone so much, and that he is always looking for a voice to share about his love. I have definitely had to get very real and serious about my walk with God and had to decide if I am really real in my commitments to serve and obey him.”
Telling Her Story
In 2011, Hamilton shared her story in a video for the Christian organization, I Am Second. She spoke of her struggle after the shark attack, as well as how her faith in God got her through that time of her life. That same year, her 2004 book was turned into a feature film titled, Soul Surfer, and was released in theaters. Bethany was portrayed by actress AnnaSophia Robb, yet, Hamilton performed all the one-armed surfing stunts in the film herself.
Life On The Small Screen
Hamilton’s other television roles included being a contestant on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? in August 2009, where she won $25,0000. The following year, in May, she appeared on an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and in October 2011, she appeared on an episode of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting. In 2013, Hamilton was cast to feature in another film. The movie Dolphin Tale 2, which revolved around the baby dolphin Hope’s story, was released in September 2014 and in which Hamilton was cast to play herself.
Finding Another Love
Just before filming for Dolphin Tale 2 began, Hamilton married her partner, Adam Dirks, a year after they met. On August 18, 2013, the pair held their wedding in front of 300 friends and family members in Kauai’s north shore. The couple met in early 2012 after Hamilton was introduced to the youth minister by a mutual friend, and they were engaged in April 2013. Hamilton stated: “I was only going to marry a surfer. And then I met Adam, I was like, maybe I’ll change my plans.”
Husband And Wife Team
In June 2014, Hamilton competed alongside her husband as part of a team on the 25th season of The Amazing Race. The married couple came in an impressive third place, and the series premiered on September 26 on CBS. A year later, in June 2015, marking two years after they wed, Hamilton gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son named Tobias. Bethany originally announced her pregnancy to the world for her first child in an adorable and perfectly fitting Instagram post.
Baby On Board
If a shark bite was not going to prevent Bethany getting back on her board, becoming pregnant sure was not going to stop her from hitting the waves. Throughout her whole pregnancy, the inspirational surfer was still planning on surfing and admitted, “I plan to surf as long as I can. Once the belly is big I may, like, mellow it out and spend more time swimming and just enjoying the ocean.” While she is passionate about surfing, she expressed, “Being a mom is a new exciting adventure.”
Exciting News For The Family
In October 2017, the couple shared the exciting news that they were expecting once again by posting a video on Bethany’s Instagram. The video of her with her husband and Tobias had the caption which read: “More than thankful to share our joyous news!!! #babyinthere #babyonboard.” The couple has chosen to wait to find out the gender of the baby till the birth but has revealed their second child is due in March 2018. So far, Bethany has shared that her pregnancy has been “mellow and manageable.”
Motherhood had not prevented Bethany from continuing her passion for surfing and had, in fact, introduced her young son to the water by the time he was just six-months-old. Not surprising that one of the world’s best surfers would welcome her baby into the sport, and chances are high that her son, Tobias, will take on the sport himself at an older age. After all, his mother was already competing from as young as eight-years-old and continues to showcase her passion.
Working With World Vision
Hamilton also works on giving back to charity and works with disabled children to support them. “I work with World Vision because I want to focus on the needs of disabled children all over the world and raise money to support them. World Vision is a Christian organization that helps provide them with care, love, and support, and gives them hope through Jesus Christ. I want to show the world’s needy children that God has plans for their lives no matter what challenge they face.”
Surfers Hall Of Fame
On August 4th, 2017, fans came out to see the Soul Surfer be inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, alongside three-time world champion, Mick Fanning. The two were given a warm welcome to Huntington Surf and Sport where they were due to make their marks with wise words on cement. Bethany chose to write ‘Always Hope’, and explained, “I think hope is such a key thing to overcome and thrive and get past really tough times. I think surfing has brought me a lot of hope.”
As well as spending time with her family and helping to raise money for disabled children, Bethany has also become an inspirational speaker. Bethany’s story, which shares details of her outlook on life following her attack at just 13-years-old, appeals to a large range of audiences and experiences and is the reason she is so in demand. While she resides in Hawaii with her family, she spends half the year traveling the world so she can attend talks and speeches.
Hamilton has a documentary in the works, which is entitled Unstoppable. Following the success of her story being told in the 2011 film Soul Surfer, a Kickstarter campaign was set up to raise money for the new documentary. Not knowing if people would be interested, the overwhelming support for the campaign impressed the surfer. “It’s pretty cool to see that people still want to hear my story and support me in my journey. I hope people are stoked with how we’ve prepared everything.”
The new documentary will showcase Hamilton’s life and give people a new perspective away from what they know of her. “A lot of people see me as Soul Surfer or that shark-attack victim, so this is kind of creating a new view for people to see, and hopefully they will be encouraged in their own journeys.” Unlike the last time her story was put into a film, Hamilton is now married with a child so that part of her life will also be shown.
Beating The Top-Ranked Surfer In The World
In 2016, Hamilton competed in the surfing competition, Cloudbreak, which took place in Fiji. The conditions at Cloudbreak are some of the most dangerous in the world and is a feat that only those with the highest physical ability and bravery can tackle. Competing alongside some of the best surfers in the world, Hamilton took on the challenge and came in at third place after having knocked the top-ranked woman surfer in the world out of the competition at an earlier stage.