Bethany Hamilton looks like any fun-loving young American teenager—bright eyed, smiling, excited about what she enjoys doing. She’s athletic, attractive, trim, tanned and blonde—qualities that in this culture can open many doors.
But Bethany faces a special challenge that many her age do not. She is missing her left arm just below the shoulder, lost to a shark attack while surfing in Hawaii in the fall of 2003. The 1,500-pound tiger shark also chomped a huge chunk from her surfboard. She’s fortunate to be alive.
Bethany, who lives on Kauai, was the state’s top-ranked female amateur surfer before the attack. Such a loss might seem devastating. USA Today reports that Bethany seems undismayed. Merely three months after the mishap, she was surfing competitively again. She aims to be among the world’s best surfers.
Rather than hiding her left arm under clothing, she displays it in tank tops and calls it “Stumpy.” When her prosthetic turned out to be too light in color to match her suntan, she nicknamed it Haole Girl, slang for a non-Hawaiian. She peels tangerines by holding them between her feet and using her right hand.
How to account for her bright spirits? Determination and dedication seem part of her makeup. But is there something more?
Her dad gives a clue. “She’s not suffering,” Tom Hamilton told the newspaper. “Somehow God gave Bethany an amazing amount of grace in this. I am in awe. She never says, ‘Why me?'”
Bethany confirms her father’s analysis: “This was God’s plan for my life, and I’m going to go with it… I might not be here if I hadn’t asked for God’s help.”
This surfer girl’s simple faith astounds observers. She has become a media darling—with TV appearances on Oprah, 20/20 and Good Morning America. Book and movie offers have come. She threw out the first pitch for baseball’s Oakland Athletics on opening day. Through it all, her family ties remain strong.
Her optimism echoes that of an early follower of Jesus, Paul, whose life-experience log included unjust imprisonments, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks and social ostracism. He was convinced that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love” Him.
Life can throw many curve balls: serious illness, accidents, terrorism, domestic strife, employment hassles, theft and more. Answers to “Why me?” and “What to do?” are often complex. Accompanying feelings of fear, confusion, grief or despair should not be ignored or minimized.
But perhaps a perspective that includes God in the picture can be a starting place for coping. Maybe the surfer girl’s belief and trust have something valuable to say to a society filled with pain and risk.
During a winter New York City media tour, Bethany spontaneously gave her ski jacket to a homeless girl sitting on a Times Square subway grate, then called off a shopping spree, citing her own material abundance.
Something very significant is happening in this young athlete’s life. Watch for more.
© 2004 Rusty Wright