Last month I wrote of our Lenten journey and how we should follow the example of Jesus (and the Abbate family) to care for others, even in the darkest times of our lives.
Now in the glorious light of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, I want to tell you about the Hamilton family, specifically their daughter Bethany, whose life is portrayed in the new film Soul Surfer. Bethany discovers that a tragic event she thought was the end of her life was in fact just the beginning to a new, more meaningful one.
The only daughter of surfers Sheri and Tom Hamilton, Bethany grew up on the island of Kauai in Hawaii and was constantly in the water. Her parents taught her how to surf at a very early age, which instilled in Bethany the dream of becoming a professional surfer.
That dream almost disappeared one morning when 13-year-old Bethany was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing. The shark bite took a big chunk out of her board and completely severed her left arm below the shoulder.
Thanks to quick thinking by her father’s friend, a tourniquet was tightly applied to the wound and she was rushed to the hospital.“I just laid there and prayed the whole way in, asking God for help,” she said in recent press reports. She said she had a “sense of peace and calmness” despite missing her left arm and losing more than half her blood because she was “able to turn to Jesus during this crazy moment in my life.”
“I think that is the one thing that just kept me alive,” Hamilton stated.
Within a month of the attack she was back in the water and managed to ride the surf after her third try. Returning to competition-level surfing, however, proved to take considerably more effort.
Without her left arm, she had to swim with just her right arm and kick harder just to get over the waves in the impact zone. She also had to relearn how to balance herself on the board and maneuver it sharply against the waves to rack up technical and style points.
The difficulty and fierce competition proved too much to Bethany, causing her to give up and give away her surfboards. She believed that competitive surfing, something she always considered to be the most important part of her life, was no longer possible.
“Why did this happen to me?” she asked her youth minister. “I don’t know why bad things happen,” her minster said, “but I have to believe that something good will come of it.”
Bethany accompanied her church’s youth group on a mission trip to Thailand to help the people affected by the deadly tsunami in 2005. As Bethany handed out supplies, she listened to a woman lament about the family and home she lost in the tidal wave. Bethany started crying and walked away from the group.
Her youth minister comforted her by saying “Don’t feel sorry for compassion. It can move us to do amazing things.” It was during this mission trip that Bethany realized that surfing is not the most important thing in her life – sharing love is.
The love lesson learned in Thailand proved to be the motivation Bethany needed to get back into competitive surfing. In July 2004, she won the Best Comeback Athlete ESPY Award. Later that year she was presented with a special “Courage Award” at the 2004 Teen Choice Awards.
In 2005 Hamilton took first place in the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) National Championships, a goal she had been trying to achieve since before the shark attack. In 2008, she began competing full-time on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Qualifying Series (WQS). In her first competition against many of the world’s best women surfers, she finished second.
Bethany’s courageous climb back upon her surfboard received world-wide acclaim. Children around the world, many battling their own disabilities, wrote to tell her that she was an inspiration to their lives. Since she worked hard to surf again, they too will try hard to do the things they want to do.
We all experience setbacks in our lives. Some are minor ones, like spilling milk or misplacing the car keys. Some are major events that change our lives, like last year’s floods or this year’s tornadoes.
What’s most important is how we respond to these setbacks, for our response will define our lives in the future. If we can respond with courage, faith and love, we will walk more closely with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
During an interview after one of her competitions, Bethany was asked by a reporter: “If you could go back to the day of the shark attack, would you go surfing again?” She responded by saying “Even if I could change that day, I wouldn’t, because I can now embrace so many more people with one arm than I could ever do with two.”
That is a response filled with love.
Born and raised in landlocked Midwestern states, Christopher Fenoglio loves (and sometimes writes from) the Gulf Coast and Carolina beaches.