Film faithful to surfer's amazing life

Bethany Hamilton Photo by

Not many 21-year-olds can say they’ve had a movie made about their life. But then there aren’t many 21-year-olds who’ve had as remarkable a life as Bethany Hamilton.

Hamilton, you may remember, is the competitive surfer who made headlines in 2003 when, at age 13, she lost her left arm to a 14-foot tiger shark. By the time she reached the hospital, she’d lost more than 60 percent of her blood, and doctors say it was only her extraordinary calmness in the minutes after the attack that prevented her from losing more.

If that were her entire story, it would be astounding enough. But Hamilton was too stubborn to let it end there.

The Kauai native was back in the water one month after the attack and started competing again two months after that, going on to win America’s top amateur surfing competition — the NSSA National Championships — in 2005.

Today moviegoers will get to experience her incredible story for themselves when “Soul Surfer” opens in theaters. Based on her 2004 autobiography, the film stars Denverite AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton. Also appearing are Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and, making her feature-film debut, country singer Carrie Underwood.

Hollywood biopics are notorious for taking liberties with the truth, but Hamilton says that wasn’t a problem with “Soul Surfer.”

“What was exciting was during the whole making of the film, the director really allowed us to be a part of just giving feedback and insight and just making it truer and truer to our lives and just more authentic,” Hamilton said during a recent publicity stop in the Springs.

So authentic, in fact, that when they found the initial surfing scenes unsatisfying, Hamilton’s family campaigned for a trip to Tahiti so they could get more realistic footage. Hamilton ended up doing most of the stunts herself.

“Pretty much the second half of the movie is all me surfing,” she said.

For two weeks during pre-production, Hamilton and Robb shared a condo on the north shore of Oahu. That experience helped the 16-year-old actress get to know the real-life person she’d be portraying. And it gave Hamilton an opportunity to teach Robb the joy of surfing.

“She caught on really fast for being a Colorado girl who hasn’t spent much time in the ocean,” she said.

The film makes no secret of the fact that Hamilton credits her amazing survival and recovery to God. And while non-Christians may be uncomfortable with scenes showing the family attending church or quoting the Bible, “Soul Surfer” manages to avoid the preachiness found in many Christian films.

“When we saw the performances, the rough cuts come together, it just got everyone very excited,” said Rich Peluso, vice president of AFFIRM Films, the faith-based division of Sony Pictures that helped produce the movie. “People are leaving the screenings feeling very inspired and uplifted.”

Hamilton agreed.

“I hope that they can look back from what we’ve experienced and just be encouraged and to push on and just persevere through the hard times, and know that good can come out of it, and look for that good stuff,” she said.

If there’s a weakness in the film, it’s that Hamilton often seems too saintly to be real. Take the scene in which she’s recuperating at the hospital, for instance. While her parents and two older brothers hover on the brink of despair, it’s the pale and weakened teenager who gives them the strength to hold on.

But Hamilton said it really did happen that way. Still, she pointed out that the scene does have one mistake.

“When I was in the hospital, I was smiling and happy and had like joy that I was alive, and you don’t really see her smile in the hospital.”

Since her accident, Hamilton has established a nonprofit organization called Friends of Bethany, through which she gives encouragement and support to limb-loss victims. But her main goal remains the same as when she started competing 13 years ago: to break into the ASP Women’s World Tour, professional surfing’s top tier.

“There are only 17 girls in that, so I’ve like missed it by like two slots two years in a row.”

Rest assured, with an unconquerable spirit like hers, it can only be a matter of time.

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