All of me
At 13, promising surfer Bethany Hamilton lost a limb in a shark attack. What did she do? She gets back in the water, turns pro and rides stunts for a film about her life, writes Megan Miller
THE water was clear and calm, the waves gently rolling in . . . another idyllic morning in the surf off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Then a flash of grey changed Bethany Hamilton’s life forever.
The 13-year-old didn’t see the 4.5m tiger shark, nor did she feel much pain: a jolt, some pressure and tugging at her arm. She noticed a chunk missing from her board. The attack was over in seconds, but it took only that long for the water around the surfer to turn vivid red.
It took Hamilton 15 minutes to paddle to shore. In shock, she remained remarkably composed as friends applied a tourniquet made from a surfboard leash to her shoulder. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she prayed.
By the time doctors began frantically working on her, Hamilton had lost 60 per cent of her blood.
Her dad Tom was about to undergo a knee reconstruction that morning, but was booted out of the operating theatre to make way for a ‘‘ 13-year-old girl coming in – a shark victim’’.
It was Bethany, and her story was already becoming world news. A shark had bitten off her left arm. Had the bite been a few centimetres higher, she would have died.
Seven-and-a-half-years on, Hamilton is more than a survivor – she’s an inspiration. Now 21, the American prefers not to make a ‘‘ big soap opera’’ out of the shark attack and is uncomfortable giving interviews.
‘‘ It’s weird talking about yourself all the time’’, she says, but the pros outweigh the cons.
Six months after the attack, Hamilton and her family were approached by filmmakers to make a movie about her life. ‘‘ We saw it as a great opportunity to share my story and encourage people in life,’’ says Hamilton, who visited Melbourne recently for the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach, in which she competed as a wildcard entrant.
‘‘ I don’t really care to be famous. It’s not something I strive for, but seeing how I can make a difference in other people’s lives makes it worth it.’’
After several re-shoots and dodgy scripts, and despite Hamilton’s understandable reluctance to discuss the shark attack in depth, Soul Surfer has hit the big screen.
Recovering in hospital in late 2003 and grappling with a future that may or may not see her riding the waves again, Hamilton toyed with becoming a surf photographer or videographer like her brothers Noah, 29, and Tim, 24.
‘‘ My dad said we could move to the mountains and I could be a snowboarder,’’ she says.
‘‘ My family just wanted to give me hope. By the time I left the hospital – I was only in there for five days – I was like, I have to try surfing.’’
She was back at the beach less than a month after the attack. She had to teach herself to surf with one arm on boards modified by her dad, with a handle to allow her to duck-dive.
In 2007, she went on to achieve her dream of becoming a professional surfer and, in the process, an international role model.
At the suggestion of Hamilton and her mum Cheri, AnnaSophia Robb ( Bridge To Terabithia and Race To Witch Mountain) was cast to play the surfer.
Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid play her parents and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood makes her film debut as Hamilton’s youth counsellor.
Actor Jack Nicholson’s 21-year-old daughter Lorraine appears as Hamilton’s best friend and fellow pro-surfer Alana Blanchard.
To give Robb the appearance of having a stump for an arm, filmmakers used digital imaging in post-production – a process similar to that used in Forrest Gump to allow Gary Sinise to play the legless Lieutenant Dan.
Hamilton was a hands-on adviser, teaching Robb, 17, to surf. ‘‘ My goal was getting her comfortable in the water and having her look the part,’’ she says.
While filmmakers agreed to allow the Hamiltons a reasonable amount of input during the making of the $ 17 million film, and the family is at peace with the final cut, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Having done much of her own stunt work for the post-attack surf scenes, Hamilton was not entirely happy with the authenticity of some shots and insisted on a re-shoot.
There was also the issue of the Hamiltons’ faith. They were upset to learn that the words ‘‘ Holy Bible’’ had been digitally removed from the cover of a Bible Hamilton’s father ( Quaid) is seen reading while keeping a vigil at his daughter’s hospital bed.
A film company executive had reportedly wanted to soften the religious element of the movie in an effort to appeal to non-Christian audiences, but the words were reinstated after the family complained.
As for giving the film the Hollywood touch, Hamilton says the only fictional stuff is the bitchy rivalry between her and another female Hawaiian surfer and love interest Keoki.
She says she’s ‘‘ just friends’’ with Keoki ( his real name), ‘‘ but it looks more than that in the movie.
But I guess it shows that he likes her as she is and she doesn’t need an arm. A lot of girls are always struggling with their body image so hopefully that aspect of the film will help.
‘‘ Yeah, I’m really happy with how it’s turned out,’’ she says. ‘‘ For us, it’s really hard compressing it all into an hour and a half. What I realised is that it’s about capturing the emotion we went through.’’
It was also important to Hamilton that older children were able to watch the shark-attack scene – for which a lifesized replica of the animal was built – and that it was handled appropriately.
‘‘ I wasn’t emotional about [ seeing the stunt shark],’’ she says. ‘‘ I was just happy with the way it was filmed.’’
She says the attack was ‘‘ supersudden, so it’s good kids can watch. I think sharks are beautiful creatures’’.
ROLLING WITH IT: Bethany Hamilton in action in Australia. Picture: Rip Curl. Opposite page Dennis Quaid, AnnaSophia Robb and Helen Hunt in a scene from the film Soul Surfer.