The Joy Mentors: Bethany Hamilton on Gratitude, Resilience and Getting Back in the Water After a Shark Attack

Welcome to our Joy Mentors series. Over the next few months, Capsule will be profiling people we consider joy mentors – people who are not only examples of a shining light but use that light to help others as well. By focusing on other people’s path to joy, we hope to help lead you to yours as well.

Bethany Hamilton knows the power of finding your happy place. She found hers early on in life – discovering that it’s the ocean that brings her the greatest joy.

When she surfed one of the world’s most notorious breaks, known as Jaws at Pe’ahi (where waves reach about 40ft), she was pounded by a set of huge waves, constantly pulled under by another monstrous, crashing wave. But when her jet ski driver finally reached her to tow her to safety during a brief lull, he nervously watched as she popped up from the foam – with a beaming smile across her face. “Whoa, this girl is gnarly,” he said.

But it hasn’t always been this way for Bethany. She began her surfing career at 11, having first set foot on a board the moment she could swim. Then, in an instant, everything changed when she was attacked by a 4.3m tiger shark one October morning, and lost her left arm. She barely survived the attack, but thanks to the quick thinking of the family she was surfing with she made it to the hospital in time – in a twist of fate, taking the operating theatre where her father was booked in for knee surgery that same morning.

An astonishing 26 days later, Bethany picked up a new board and went back into the ocean. Was she terrified? Absolutely. But she also knew that her terror was outweighed by her capacity to feel joy – and reclaiming that joy was worth working through the terror for.

When Bethany returned to the very same beach at her home in Hawaii where she was attacked, she decided she didn’t want to live her life in fear. “I really think sharks are such a beautiful creature,” she told us. “If you’re going to spend your life being scared of sharks, then you might as well be afraid of everything, because it’s such a rare thing to happen.”

Since then, Bethany has continued to follow her joy, and – despite the odds being stacked against her – she is now a professional surfer, wife, and mother of three sons after giving birth to her youngest Micah on Valentine’s Day.

It was said she’d never be able to surf again after the loss of her arm, but she proved the world wrong. Then, when she became a young mother, again, many thought she’d sit the competitive circuit out. And once again, she proved the cynics wrong.

Bethany says her ability to find happiness and joy in life comes from gratitude – something she practices every day. “Gratitude helps you to take your eyes off the negative, the problem, the bummers in life, and instead recognise what you DO have, what you CAN do, what you HAVE overcome already,” she says.

She also spends a lot of time being thankful for her body – just the way it is – and celebrating it. “I celebrate my body because of its abilities and things that I can do,” she says. “I can birth children, I can ride waves really well and I can do so much more! But yeah, I celebrate myself for who I am and the life I live.”

We caught up with Bethany – ever the multi-tasker – just days before she gave birth, where we talked about joy, resilience and success…

Congratulations Bethany – as we talk, you’re very near your due date! How are you feeling, and how has it been, being pregnant during such a tumultuous time in history?
Thank you! This past year has been a bit emotional, and probably felt a little more so being pregnant! But my husband and I (even our two older boys) are really excited to be growing our family.

How did you get through 2020 (aka one of the most insane years in history) on the whole? This seemed to be the year you were on track to qualify for the CT [The Women’s Championship Tour]? How did you regroup, and deal with that disappointment, especially while there was so much uncertainty in the world?
It was really difficult for me to cope with the realisation that the  competitive year I had put so much effort and energy into preparing for –  both physically and mentally –  was not going to happen.

I actually get a little vulnerable sharing about this in a chat I had with Marie Forleo for my Unstoppable Life course on Setting and Achieving Goals.

I had a lot of tears and a lot of conversations with my husband about the future. Change is really hard, but I’m so thankful to have support from him and so many other friends and family that surround me. With that support and some mental re-framing, it was easier to see the possibilities that were right in front of us.

You’ve certainly shown you have resilience in spades over the course of your lifetime. What do you do, or say to yourself, when you’re feeling lost, afraid or defeated?
It’s a phrase that became popular from the film Soul Surfer: “I don’t need easy, I just need possible.”

What keeps you coming back to the water? 
My passion for the sport and the healing and joy I find just being in the ocean. Plus I love a challenge!

You’ve certainly risen to many challenges. Back in 2016 you were nominated for an ESPY award In the Best Female with a Disability category, but you withdrew your name from the running. Can you tell us about why it didn’t sit well with you?When I first found out I had been nominated for an ESPY, I expected it to be in the Best Female Athlete of the Year category. When I found out it was Best Female Athlete with a Disability I was incredibly disappointed.

I don’t think of myself as having a disability. I’m out there surfing with all the normal pro surfers, at their level, so I felt like I should be receiving an award that didn’t reflect on my limb difference. Does that make sense?

I do think it’s much more positive to focus on the ways those of us with physical differences have adapted to our challenges. I asked the ESPY committee to change the name of the award to Best Female Adaptive Sports Athlete, or something like that, and they considered it but they decided not to

That absolutely makes sense. Now, you’re someone we want to profile as a ‘Joy Mentor’ – you’re someone who understands what brings them joy and how to focus on and harness that feeling. You’ve been able to rise to any challenges thrown at you, in the pursuit of living your happiest, best life. Would you describe yourself as an inherently happy person, or is it something that takes a lot of work?
Thank you! No, I think I can find happiness in simple things, so maybe it is inherent?

What brings you the greatest joy?
My family, the ocean and surfing, quality time with friends, delicious healthy food, and of course my faith 🙂

Do you believe there are any secrets to being happy? How do you cultivate a happy life?
I think it starts and ends with gratitude. When you look for the good in a situation, or the hope beyond it, or focus on one thing you are thankful for in the midst of it, then even the worst situations can be re-framed.

What does success look like to you? 
Doing my best.

What experiences along your journey have you found the most rewarding?
Giving surfing with one arm a try! If I had never tried, I never would have been able to go on to do the things I’ve done, or serve the people my story has inspired all over the world!

Thanks Bethany – and, we’re excited your film, Unstoppable, is playing on TV here in NZ soon. It’s such a great documentary – encompassing your life’s story. I’ve heard you say you’re often defined by the media or the general public for just one event, one hour of your life. How does it feel to now, through this film, have told your full story and shared who you are, beyond just what happened to you when you were 13?
It feels really good to put my more complete story out there. You know, I’d meet so many people on the street and they’d ask “Do you still surf?” I’d be thinking: ‘yeah, I’ve gone on to surf professionally! I’ve become one of the best female surfers in the world – and with only one arm!!!

So to have that part of my story more readily available for people to discover feels great to me.

I hope you enjoy the film! And if you do, come over to and see more of what I’ve got going on! I’m excited to be able to be a sort of life coach to people like you through my online courses and programs, and to encourage people weekly through my blogs and emails. Aloha!

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable premieres Thursday 4 March, 8.30pm, SKY’s Rialto Channel 39.

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