Bethany Hamilton: she surfs and does airs with one arm | Photo: Rip Curl

To be a surfer you have to love the feeling of surfing. It takes a lot of hard work to catch waves. The learning curve for surfing can be quite steep.

If you take lessons and pick the right board shape and size, for the right wave height and speed, you are steps closer to ripping like the pros.

The paddle, the pop-up, and duck diving, all take time to master and execute effectively. Normal challenges include starting late in life or not having the money for high-performance boards.

The list goes on. But some people are at disadvantages outside the normal realm of learning to surf. In this article, we are going to discuss a very rare disadvantage but a miraculous one at that.

Surfing with just one arm. Yes, you read that right. It is possible. World-class surfing, balancing, paddling, navigating and having fun with just one upper limb.

The story of Bethany Hamilton is a sad, devastating one. However, it can bring motivation, hope, and faith to the universal-humanistic-self-destructive flaw we all struggle to silence.

Bethany's surfing career started early in life. Her dad took her surfing frequently, and she picked it up like a sponge. Surfing whenever she had the chance. As time went on, she began traveling and competing. Even placing first in the open women's division of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA).

Putting her on the map for up and coming youth talent. But one unfortunate day found her face to face with a surfer's worst nightmare. On October 12, 2003, with her arm dangling in the water, while out at the lineup, a fourteen-foot tiger shark bit off most of her left arm.

After being rushed to the hospital and going through emergency surgery, she recovered and returned to the water just a month later. As the media grabbed hold of the story, so did Hamilton and her determination to overcome her disability.

Bethany Hamilton: who said you need two arms to paddle a surfboard? | Photo: Rowland/WSL

When the world deals you bad cards, it's easy to roll up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself. Fortunately, Hamilton had great support and unbelievable strength to endure. She says surfing was tough and frustrating, but her love of the sport drove her to adapt techniques to continue surfing. 

Starting from the basics, she began her recovery with a longboard and slowly worked her way to the aggressive short boards. However, this was met with many speed bumps and road blocks.

Paddling took some getting used to, but she says you would be surprised how straight the board goes. And thanks to the fins for keeping her from spinning in circles.

Then getting out past the impact zone was the next struggle. So, her dad installed a custom handle inspired by Hawaii boogie board lifeguards. If you're interested in purchasing your own handle plugs, they can be found online. The same ones Bethany uses.

The techniques she deploys are duck diving with one hand placed in the center of the board or standing on the board to make it sink deeper than usual. Once out to the lineup, Bethany admits she takes a lot of late drops because of her lack of speed, however it does make watching her more exciting.

Standing up and popping up came pretty natural because her love of the sport never let her give up. She also attributes the success of her adaptations to being young. Being only 13 years old at the time of the accident gave her plenty of time to grow into her adult body and physical fitness.

While some people fall into despair and self-pity from the cards we are dealt, Bethany became famous thanks to what she did following her accident.

Thank you Bethany Hamilton: you are a true inspiration to all of us.


Words by Colin Kirk.