Soul Surfer – The Story of Bethany Hamilton
Bethany Hamilton’s Triumphant Return to Surfing
Soul Surfer (2011) is the story of Bethany Hamilton and her recovery from a 2003 shark attack in which she lost her left arm at the age of thirteen. The movie is based on Hamilton’s memoir Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board.
Set in Hawaii, the film opens with home movie footage of Hamilton as a child on the beach with her family, surfing, and playing ukulele with her friend Alana Blanchard. Then the movie jumps to present day, with Bethany in the water on her surfboard before being called to the beach by her brother to attend church with her family. At the service in a big tent next to the ocean, they are greeted by Sarah Hill, a church youth leader who becomes an influential person in Hamilton’s life.
After a brief scene of Hamilton’s parents surfing together, the movie shifts to its first surfing competition. Hamilton and Blanchard, who aspire to be professional surfers, have both entered the contest, as is Malina Birch, a rival. Hamilton wins the competition, while Birch is second and Blanchard is third. Afterwards, Hamilton and Blanchard learn that Rip Curl, a surfing swimwear manufacturer, wants to sponsor them as pro surfers. At this point, life couldn’t be better for the two girls as they’re living the surfing dream.
Now that she’s sponsored, Hamilton feels obligated to train harder and become even more dedicated to her sport. At a church youth group meeting about having perspective in life, Hamilton tells Hill that she can no longer go on a mission trip to Mexico that she had committed to because she has to practice. Hill is disappointed, and Hamilton is torn by both her own feelings of guilt and the sense that Hill doesn’t understand how important surfing is to her.
The night before Halloween, Hamilton and Blanchard sneak out to go night surfing for the first time with friends. From their boards out in the ocean, they watch fireworks shoot out over the beach. The next morning, a day like any other day, the girls go surfing with Blanchard’s father and brother, while Hamilton’s father prepares for knee surgery at the local hospital. While they are in the water on their surfboards, a tiger shark appears out of nowhere and rips off Hamilton’s arm.
The Blanchards rush Bethany to the beach, tie off what’s left of her arm with a tourniquet, and call 911. Just as surgery is about to start on Tom Hamilton’s knee, a nurse bursts into the operating room telling the doctor that the room is now needed for the victim of a shark attack. By the time Hamilton arrives, she’s lost 60% of her blood.
The experience is a shock to everyone involved and it takes Blanchard some time before she’s able to visit her friend in the hospital. There’s also a large amount of news coverage, with many reporters ever-present. All things considered, Hamilton is relatively upbeat in the hospital and is looking forward to surfing again. However, she is overwhelmed to see a mob of reporters outside their house upon her return from the hospital. She’s forced to enter her own house from the back to avoid the crowd.
At home, Bethany begins to understand how much she must relearn, as she can no longer play the ukulele, slice a tomato, or even get the twist tie off a loaf of bread. Still, she’s determined to surf again and accepts an offer from the TV show Inside Edition to do an interview in exchange for a custom prosthetic arm. (However, she discovers later that too much of her arm was lost for the prosthetic to be weight-bearing and to help her surf.)
The day before Thanksgiving —not even a month after her accident— she goes out with her family to surf for the first time. It’s awkward but she does manage to finally make it up on her board. On Thanksgiving, the Hamiltons have a large outdoor celebration where they thank all their friends for their support.
Soon after this, Hamilton goes to see Sarah Hill, who has returned from the mission trip to Mexico. At first, Bethany puts up a brave front but eventually breaks down and asks Hill how losing her arm could possibly be God’s plan. Hill tells her all they can do is have faith that some good will come from it. Hamilton decides to go ahead and surf in an upcoming competition.
At the competition, she encounters Birch, who is still as surly and unfriendly as ever to Hamilton. Despite the trouble she has paddling on her board out to the launch area, Bethany’s bigger problem is that Birch keeps cutting in front of her to steal her waves. In retaliation, Blanchard disqualifies herself by surfing into Birch. Hamilton winds up breaking her board in the surf and becomes so frustrated back in the parking lot that she gives her remaining surfboards to some girls who came to ask for her autograph.
Bethany decides to give up surfing and on a whim, travels to Thailand with Hill and her youth group to help survivors of a massive tsunami. Bethany gains some perspective when she sees what real devastation is like —ruined towns, dead family members, and parentless children. She befriends a small, orphan boy who won’t speak and eventually gets him out in the water on a surfboard. Upon seeing this, everyone on the beach begins to clap and gets into the water too.
Upon returning to Hawaii, Bethany discovers stacks of fan mail from around the world written by people who were inspired by her story; this, in return, inspires her as she realizes that she must enter an upcoming competition and surf again. Bethany’s dad find a way to modify her board so she can paddle out into deep water much easier, while she begins to train in earnest to become stronger.
Birch and Blanchard have also entered the competition, with Birch the favorite to win. Over the course of the day, Hamilton advances through the rounds until she reaches the finals, along with the other two girls. Birch is surfing great, but Hamilton still has a chance to win if she can catch just one more big wave before time runs out. Out of nowhere, her wave finally comes and she has a great ride. Unfortunately, she didn’t catch the wave in time and the ride is disqualified. Birch wins while Bethany finishes in fifth place.
Despite this, as Hamilton tells her dad, the wave really did “count” in terms of what she needed for herself. At the winners’ podium, Birch shows her respect to Hamilton, telling Bethany that she’s the toughest person she knows and invites Hamilton up on the podium with her.
Contributing author: Mark Long
Real Life, Reel Differences
- Bethany Hamilton is almost six feet tall (5’ 11”), but AnnaSophia Robb is only five feet tall. However, most of the footage in the movie of Hamilton’s character surfing after the accident was done by Hamilton herself.
- Rip Curl decides to sponsor Hamilton after the first surfing competition in the movie when she was thirteen. However, Rip Curl actually began sponsoring her in 2009 when she was only nine.
- While Hamilton and Blanchard went night surfing the night before the shark attack, it was not the first time they had done so.
- The shark is shown in the movie attacking Hamilton, but in actuality, nobody saw it happen. Instead, Hamilton said she felt a couple of hard tugs on her arm as it was in the water, and immediately knew what had happened.
- Tom Hamilton did not drive through bushes/hedges at their house to escape reporters. Instead, Hamilton stayed with friends for a while after leaving the hospital due to all the media attention.
- Although Blanchard did travel to Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, there was no one moment where she got a mute, orphan boy out on a surfboard. Instead, she told her story to raise awareness of physical challenges and helped disabled children learn to be less afraid of the water.
- In the movie, Malina Birch is Hamilton’s nemesis. However, this was a composite character based on multiple surfers, not just one. In addition, while Hamilton did place fifth in the last competition depicted in the movie, her friend Alana Blanchard did not run into another surfer.
- Despite her frustration with her performance upon returning to her first surfing contest, Hamilton did not give her surfboards away in the parking lot after it was over.
Where Are They Now?
Bethany Hamilton became a successful pro surfer and is still surfing today as a Rip Curl team member. In 2004 she received an ESPY for “Best Comeback Athlete” from ESPN. She married youth pastor Adam Dirks in 2013. They were on the twenty-fifth season of The Amazing Race in 2014 and finished third. Also in 2014, she won the Surf ‘n Sea Pipeline Pro on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. She gave birth to their son Tobias in 2015.
Bethany has a well-maintained website and is active on Twitter (308,000 followers as of June 2016), Instagram (1.4 million followers as of June 2016), and Facebook (2.2 million likes as of June 2016). Here is an interview with Hamilton shortly after the shark attack, and below is a short interview with her about the making of Soul Surfer:
Alana Blanchard is also a professional surfer for Rip Curl and a model. She has her own Rip Curl clothing line, Alana’s Closet. She and Hamilton, working with Rip Curl and Hanalei Surf Company, host the annual Bethany and Alana Keiki Classic in Hawaii. (2016 marked its third year.) The surf competition is a free event for male and female surfers 14 years old and younger. Her website, isn’t as well developed as Hamilton’s, but she is active on Twitter (183,000 followers as of June 2016), Instagram (1.7 million followers as of June 2016), and Facebook (2.1 million likes as of June 2016)
Sarah Hill is still a youth minister, pastor, and speaker based in Hawaii. Although her website hasn’t been updated in a year, she is active on Twitter (3,500 followers as of June 2016) and Facebook (3,600 likes as of June 2016).