In real life, Bethany Hamilton is among the top women’s surfers the world.
In reel life, her story, “Soul Surfer,” which hit theatres today, would rank among any sport’s top comeback flicks of all time. Not even Hollywood could mess up this script.
More than seven years ago, before dawn on Halloween morning, she had her left arm taken off by a 14-foot tiger shark while they were both sharing the waters off the shore of Kauai, Hawaii.
“When can I surf again?” the 13-year-old asked after her emergency surgery.
She returned almost immediately, and began to spread the word of her story, in hopes of helping others overcoming obstacles put in front of them.
Hamilton, now 21 and on the women’s pro tour since 2007, talks about the reaction so far to her life story, and why it still resonates:
QUESTION: How did you gauge the reaction from the audience after you attended the “blue carpet” premiere recently in L.A.?
ANSWER: I thought everyone was stoked on it. That’s really nice. I had heard it was hard to get good feedback from L.A. because everyone can be so critical about movies. It was cool. Everyone enjoyed it, and we had a wonderful night with my family and some of my best friends.
Q: As a competitive athlete now, do you find yourself actually some kind of psychological advantage over opponents? In that you’re able to do what you do so well without both arms?
A: Surfing is very different from a lot of other sports, because there’s so much arm movement, and having to paddle fast, and position yourself properly. For me, I really have to focus and think through my heat and study the lineup. I really don’t think of it as having any kind of advantage. If anything, it can still hold me back in certain waves. But once you’re up on the board, and as long as I get two good waves, I’m good. The girls I compete against, we’re all good friends, so once we’re on land, we don’t talk much about the competition or who has advantages.
Q: Does competitive surfing at times take anything away from the pure fun of riding the board?
A: I can see where there are times when I’m so focused on getting better in a competition, I forget to just have fun and be in the ocean. I always come back to being grateful just to be able to continue surfing, especially after those long trips. I’m stoked to get back in the water. I know the name of the movie, and when you talk about ‘soul surfers,’ most of them you don’t consider to be competitive. I interpret it as: If you find something you’re passionate about, no matter what, you love it. And whether I’m competing or not, I’d be in the water loving it. Some do get burned out and lose their passion. But that’s not the case for me. When the waves are good, I’ll be out there all day.
Q: Have you gotten used to the media fishbowl yet, especially now, with this new wave of it, after all these years? Did it make you grow up fast?
A: Yeah, it’s been crazy coming from mellow Kauai to get thrown into all this crazy, but it’s all been a good experience, a way to reach more people and share our story with everything. It’s a lot of hoping on planes and sleeping in hotels and getting homesick, but even worse, being away from the ocean.
Q: Reading your book again, you didn’t seem to be someone who took things for granted. You’re very grounded in Christianity. Is that even more the case now than back then, and would it be something that you’d have anyway because you’re more you’re more mature, not just because of the accident that happened?
A: My faith in Jesus has always kept me grounded me, and keeps me going, and inspires me every day. I know I’m not perfect and God loves me and He can help me get through things, guide me on life decisions. There are so many decisions that have to be made, and making the movie became very intense sometimes because we had to be on top of everything. There was some stuff we didn’t approve of. But it’s been awesome to be able to trust in God and know His plan is much better than the one I have.
Q: Where are the best places you’ve found to surf in California?
A: I love going out at ‘Lowers’ (Lower Trestles in Orange County), but the crowd can be intense. I just try to find a spot where it’s a little less known. We always have a stop in Huntington (Beach), and it gets pretty hectic there, too, but it’s also great to see all the people come together to support it. I stay with a good friend when I’m there and manage to get some quiet time around Orange County when I’m there.
Q: Even though actors play you throughout the films, primarily AnnaSophia Robb, you managed to do make an appearance in the movie, right?
A: I got to do a lot of the one-armed stunt surfing and have a cameo in one scene.
Q: What was the strangest part about seeing someone play you on the big screen? Was there a scene that you reacted to that caught you by surprise?
A: I became good friends with AnnaSophia, and the way she portrayed me, it was easier to take in.
Q: Your book is the basis for the movie, but what did Hollywood do to your story to add to it, as it tends to do sometimes?
A: There are two fictional characters. “Maria” is a competitive surfer who has a rivalry with me. But I liked that aspect of the movie. There’s competitiveness, so it works and we end up friends in the movie. Then there’s a friend of mine named “Taoki,” and I liked how his character worked. So even if there is some fiction in there, my family and I approved of it and we really worked with the writers and directors to come up with something that moves the story as long as it doesn’t water things down.
Q: What do you hope movie goers take away from “Soul Surfer,” particularly those who may not know about the religious faith aspect that kind of holds your story together?
A: Of course, I want to share my faith, and my love of surfing, but I want it to be natural. I didn’t want to push it on anyone. I want them to just be encouraged, see how good things can come from bad. Everyone thinks, ‘How horrible,’ but I see all the good that has come out of it. I’m still surfing, all over the world. It’s cool to know that hopefully we can have another surfing movie on the big screen.
Q: Has anyone made comparisons to your movie and the James Franco movie, “127 Hours”?
A: Not too many, but it’s funny — we both lost our arms in the same year (2003) and the movies came out the same year, and we’re still both doing the things we love. I haven’t met (mountain climber Aron Ralston), but I did see his film and enjoyed it. It was cool to see the similarities in our stories.
Q: Really? How did you react to the scene where he lost his arm?
A: I like how we did the scene in ‘Soul Surfer’ better – it happened quick, we did the scene quick. It’s not too much for kids to handle. We didn’t want it to turn into a ‘Jaws’ movie. But in (“127 Hours”), honestly, I fast forwarded (on the DVD) that part. It was gnarly. So gnarly.