Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable

| Kurt Jensen | July 23, 2019 | 0 Comments

Perhaps the most startling image in the documentary “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” (Entertainment Films) is of the pro surfer, who lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack, confidently navigating her surfboard while seven months pregnant with her first child.

“Actually, in Hawaii, I see it all the time,” Hamilton, 29, tells Catholic News Service. “It’s kind of like walking down the sidewalk.”

Poster for the documentary, Bethany Hamilton-Unstoppable

Poster for the documentary, Bethany Hamilton-Unstoppable

It had one unexpected benefit, too. The change in her center of gravity meant “I actually got better at surfing when I was pregnant.”

Hamilton turned her tragedy into motivational speaking and — along with husband Adam Dirks, a former youth minister husband — evangelism. “God gave me this passion to serve,” she explains in the film.

Their current ministerial appearances, she stresses, are nondenominational. “We have endeavored on our own faith projects. I understand how my faith is so key to getting through life and, yeah, the diverse body and soul that I worked on.”

Her fan base, as always, is primarily young girls, most of whom she knows aren’t surfers themselves. Instilling confidence in them involves an awareness of online perils that can damage self-esteem. “I’m not a big fan of social media, even though I’m a part of it.”

The outline of her story has been famous for years. Bethany returned to surfing just a month after a tiger shark bit off both her arm and a big chunk of her board. She began winning titles the following year and turned professional in 2007.

She married Dirks in 2013, their TV appearances include a season of “The Amazing Race” in 2014 and together they’ve produced a children’s book, “Unstoppable Me.” They also offer an online course in self-confidence.

The documentary, directed by Adam Lieber, relies heavily on the participation of Hamilton’s parents, Tom and Cheri, and surfer friends including Alana Blanchard, Kelly Slater and Coco Ho. It isn’t so much about a single motivating event as the simple, yet grinding, work of starting each day and approaching tasks to reach a goal.

The film doesn’t break down surfing into teaching moments, but it also doesn’t shy away from the occasional high-impact mishap.

In the movie, the principal goal, along with winning a world title, is to surf a giant break, north of the Hawaiian island of Maui, known as Jaws. With waves as high as 60 feet, Jaws, which has an annual competition, has long been a magnet for professional surfers, much the same way certain peaks are for mountain climbers. To harness its power is to achieve.

The challenges of surfing with one arm are explained frankly. Maintaining balance is the most obvious one, but there’s real peril in not having enough strength to paddle out to the breaks. A surfboard handle Tom installs is the only concession to physical disability.

Bethany’s initial fame from a 2011 biopic “Soul Surfer,” in which she was portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb, became a burden as well. Public appearances, however cheerfully met, got in the way of training time.

“I was asking God to help me through that time,” she says in the film. “It was unclear what my future would be.”

Renewed focus came in the form of husband Adam, whom she met through friends. He knew of her fame, but not of her powerful appeal to young girls. “I never realized what a big deal Bethany was,” he admits.

Now, with sons Tobias, 4, and Wesley, 18 months, “I really maximize my time and get home as fast as I can,” she says. “I don’t like to be away from my boys for too long. I think with parenthood, you kind of know how to pick and choose the things that you do.”

Teaching Tobias to surf has been easy, she conceded. “I pushed him in the water, and he rides along on his own. I started young like that, and I started catching waves on my own. I hope my kids love it as much as I do.”

Parenthood, she’s found, “helps you understand just how God’s love for us is way more than we can understand, probably.” Her boys “are absolutely beautiful in my eyes. I think that’s how God sees us, too.”

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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