This one was an episode I was really looking forward to.
I was in college when I first heard Bethany’s story.
Bethany has been a competitive surfer for as long as she can remember. When you grow up in Hawaii, getting out on the waves with a board is just as normal as riding bikes is for a midwestern kid like me. And she was good. Really good. By the time she was 8, Bethany was already placing first in international competitions. Her future looked as bright as the sun at the beach.
Then at 13, she was attacked by a shark and lost her left arm. And man, that would be devastating for anyone. But it’s even more of a big deal when you’re a surfer, since you need your upper body strength for balance, and getting up on the board.
So just imagine doing what you love every day. You get to live your passion. You’re having fun day in and day out. Then overnight, everything changes. You get ripped from what you love and you have to adapt to a new idea of life.
I’ve thought about Bethany’s struggle a lot, since it was only a few years later when I experienced my own life-changing and career-ending injury. I fell into a wall playing arena football, shattered my arm, and had to overcome my own obstacles. I thought my life was over.
So, how did Bethany go from lying in a hospital bed recovering from a terrifying injury to being back in the ocean 4 weeks later?
That’s what I wanted to find out. What makes her different. What makes her unique. And ultimately, what drives her to succeed.
Since her accident, she’s done some incredible things. In addition to continuing to surf competitively (and rack up honors), Bethany has also become a bestselling author. Had not one, but two movies made about her life (the fictionalized “Soul Surfer,” and the documentary “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable”). She’s also gotten married, and started a family.
Some people faced with this type of trauma fall into a state of depression and hopelessness. But others, like Bethany, use it as fuel. Today, Bethany radiates happiness despite having been impacted by trauma.
Injury or no injury, she’s living her best life. And from my perspective, here are a few takeaways as to why…
The ocean is the reason the term “force of nature” exists. It’s vast. Unpredictable. Nothing you want to underestimate. As Bethany has pointed out, It’s always humbling you, and putting you in your place.
Bethany knew this. She was already a world-class surfer by her early teens. She had a lifetime of training to prepare for her “big wave” moment. She knew it was about playing the long game; about the small preparations everyday that accumulate over time.
That’s why she started training her breath holds with her parents at just at 7 years old. Practiced staying calm under water. So when she got to the real heavy waves, the conditioning was there.
When she was attacked, Bethany almost bled out. Her medical team estimated that she lost 60% of her blood immediately following her shark encounter.
How did she stay calm in a moment like this? She credits her parents for stressing the importance of faith with her at a young age. She turned to her beliefs in that moment, and in other tough moments during her recovery, to give her the strength to overcome.
That way, once she started bouncing back, she didn’t have any time to feel sorry for herself. Because she was too busy being at peace and thankful to be alive. She knew she had so much more to live for. And after not just surviving, but thriving in the wake of her trauma, Bethany understood that good can come from even the most terrible of situations.
Bethany’s been asked many times about her encounter with the shark. And her thoughts on it have been pretty resolute: “I can’t change it, That was God’s plan for my life and I’m going to go with it.”
The hardest things in life can bring us the most joy. And having a family is no different.
Bethany has been very forthcoming about balancing her challenges with her family relationships. She and her husband had initially planned to start their family much later in order to give her more time to advance in her career. But the kids had other plans.
So, not only does Bethany still surf competitively, but she also gives her full faith and nurturing nature to her family. She and I talked quite a bit about how the struggle of life, relationships, career, family and everything else isn’t easy, just worth it.
Bethany told me she used to be hooked on getting knocked around by the waves. The unpredictability of the ocean was one of its biggest draws for her. Just like any other sport, surfing asks you to train your skills to be able to handle whatever competing might feel like throwing at you. Because every time out on the court, field, diamond, track, or ocean is going to be just a little different, and that’s what keeps it exciting.
I think athletes need a little bit of loving the pain. I know I sure did. Between training hard, practicing, working out and getting beaten up during the game, I got my butt kicked pretty regularly.
But our tolerance for the pain definitely shifts over time. It did for me, and it has for Bethany as well. She was really up-front about not just her attack, but how it’s colored her life since. I was really surprised when she told me that for her, childbirth was much more painful than having her arm bitten off by a shark!
Sometimes, our biggest challenges come in the form of just surrendering to the process and realizing that sometimes we’re meant to endure some pain in service of growth. I shattered my arm, but it led me to a life of helping people achieve their dreams. Bethany lost her arm, but she gained a global platform and inspired millions.
So maybe the traumas you’ve endured aren’t setbacks. Maybe they’re set-UPS. Sometimes getting knocked down is the only way to come back stronger, bigger, and better.
Real talk: life can really beat you up. But if you have an easy life where you’re never challenged, that’s just as much of a problem.
Nobody likes losing. I know I sure didn’t. But it happened. And it wasn’t until I realized that even defeat has value that I really started to grow. Because when faced with tough life obstacles, you either win, or you learn. And learning is the only way to advance. To improve. To keep going.
Remember: we’re only truly beaten when we give up. As long as we can pick ourselves up from what hurts us, we still win.
Listen to my talk with Bethany HERE, and get back on your own board.
Rest in peace, Kobe Bryant. You will be missed. Thank you for the game, for the stories, and for all the love.