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CARMEL CHURCH—“God gave me a passion for surfing and he had plans for that,” Bethany Hamilton told a crowd of 1,300 in the packed gym at The Carmel School on Wednesday night.
She became famous at age 13 when a 14-foot tiger shark bit off her left arm while she was surfing in Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2003.
In October 2004, Bethany shared her life story in her autobiography titled “Soul Surfer,” a New York Times best-seller. Seven years later, the book was made into a movie bearing the same title which was released theatrically in April 2011.
“The best decision I’ve made in my life was to live for Jesus Christ and be the best surfer I could be,” she said on stage. She was born into a family of surfers, and her mom, Cherilyn Hamilton, would take her and her brothers, Noah and Timothy, both older, to “surf spots” around Hawaii to surf.
Her father, Thomas, would awaken her at “4 in the morning and drive two hours to a favorite surf spot,” she said. “My parents would take us on camping trips and we’d go kayaking. My parents took time to spend with us.
“I encourage all you parents to spend quality time with your kids. Love on them and show them the way to the Lord.” Bethany’s mom often read the Bible to her at bedtime, she noted.
Bethany, now 23 and 5-foot-11, began surfing at a young age and entered her first competition at age 8. By the eighth grade, she competed against older high school students and finished second in a national surfing competition.
“I had a natural talent in surfing. God has given all of us talents. He just might want to use those talents if you’re willing.”
One night, “I prayed, ‘God use me in a way that you see as best.’ Two weeks later, my arm was gone. Fortunately, I had Jesus in my life.”
Bethany and her mom were sure God would get them through the ordeal. But that wasn’t the response of her entire family. “Dad was angry and upset with God. He didn’t want to understand why God let this happen to his little girl.
“No matter what you’re going through, God can give you the strength to overcome it,” she said.
After the shark attack, there were times “I would look in the mirror and see one arm and I’d compare myself to other girls. It wasn’t a good way to look at it.”
While she was different from other girls, she still had hope that she would someday be married. “I asked God to bring me a husband someday.” Her husband, Adam Dirks, whom she married in Hawaii in August, hopped up on the stage.
The muscular youth minister wanted to get involved in Young Life, a Christian program, and he had a friend who suggested he move from Kansas to Hawaii, which he did. Adam and Bethany met on a blind date. While surfing is a passion of Bethany’s, “Adam—he’s a huge passion of mine. I’m a passion of his. We share Christ together.”
Hawaii has many single-mom families, she said, and “a lot of kids don’t have fathers.” Adam spends time with some of those children. “He shows these kids who Jesus is. The kids sit down and shut their mouths and listen to Adam.”
During a question and answer segment of her presentation, a student got on the stage with Bethany and Adam and asked if she had a favorite verse in the Bible, and Bethany quoted, 2nd Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”
Another student asked her how she felt when she became a role model. “When I stepped into the limelight, I did my first interview (with the media) five days after I lost my arm. Now, I’ve done over a thousand interviews. I shared Christ in one of my first interviews. I had faith God was going to use me.
“Fame is odd to me,” Bethany noted. “I didn’t understand it at first. My only hope was to put my faith in Jesus.” She noted that she had heard that “lives were changed by what I was going through.”
Another student asked Bethany how she felt when approached about making the movie about her. It was her agent who suggested her story be told through a feature film. “It’s scary to take your life story and put it into the hands of Hollywood.”
While the movie was being filmed, one of her brothers was on the set everyday, just observing. Whenever he saw “something sketchy” being filmed, he would alert the rest of the family or say something to the crew.
The director, Sean McNamara, created a shark attack scene for the movie, and Bethany’s reaction was: “Oh no. This is ‘Jaws’ (the movie) all over again. I don’t have anything against sharks. The ocean is their home. I didn’t want anyone leaving the movie and hating sharks.
“So I did a nudge in a sweet kind of way,” Bethany said, and the director removed the shark attack scene from the movie.
She is happy the movie was made, she said, because the “movie has reached a lot more people than I could just by speaking.” She travels the world as a motivational/inspirational speaker. She spoke at Liberty University before visiting Caroline County and then she and Adam returned to Hawaii.
Blogs and websites mention men in the audience who cry when they see the movie, which had a production budget of $18 million. It has grossed $47 million worldwide at the box office, and U.S. DVD sales have topped $15 million. The film features an all-star cast, including Anna Sophia Robb (playing Bethany), Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood and Dennis Quaid.
She has another book coming out titled, “Body and Soul.” It’s about “health, fitness and faith in God,” and it’s directed toward teen girls, she said.
One of the final questions from students focused on Bethany’s near-death moments after the shark attack as her body lost 60 percent of its blood and she went into hypovolemic shock. “Did you get a glimpse of heaven and consider whether to come back?” the student asked.
“I did pass out twice,” Bethany said. “But I was focused on staying alive and not falling asleep. I didn’t see any light of heaven.”