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

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page -

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.

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