Surfer Girl Makes Comeback After Shark Attack

Most observers doubted teenage surfing prodigy Bethany Hamilton would ever be able to surf competitively again after she lost her left arm -- and nearly her life -- in a vicious shark attack off the coast of Hawaii in October 2003.

But Hamilton has refused to let her story become a tragedy. She has since returned to surfing, and has proven she can still compete with the best in her sport. Her courage and positive attitude has also earned her numerous awards and product endorsements -- as well as widespread acclaim and admiration.

"I get tons of letters -- stories of people that were going through a hard time and then they saw that I didn't give up on my dreams," she told "Primetime Live" co-anchor Chris Cuomo. "I kept surfing -- it helped them out a lot and that just shows that good can come out of like bad stuff like this."

Hamilton won fifth place at the National Surfing Championships in 2004, and took first place in the Open Women's division at the first stop on the Hawaii National Scholastic Surfing Association circuit.

Last October, Hamilton released a biography titled "Soul Surfer." A movie based on the book starts filming this year. She won the 2004 ESPY Award from ESPN for Best Comeback Athlete, and Janet Jackson presented her with a special Courage Award at the 2004 Teen Choice Awards.

Hamilton is even branching out into perfumes. She just launched two fragrances -- "Stoked" for girls, and "Wired" for boys.

Taking Baby Steps

Hamilton's recovery was not easy. She was already a teen surfing star when a huge shark attacked her as she was lying on her surfboard in the calm waters off the North Shore of Kauai. The creature took a 16-inch bite out of her board and Hamilton nearly died from blood loss. She was just 13 years old at the time.

She says when she first returned to surfing, she felt like she was learning the sport all over again, "just learning with one arm, and adapting to not having two there."

"Before ... I was really strong at paddling ... Since this happened, I only have one arm and my paddling's definitely slowed down," she said, likening surfing with one arm to "a one-arm push-up."

It was a slow process. "Every time I would go out there, I would learn something new ... I kept practicing just on smaller waves, just standing up and figuring how to catch it and all that and each time I felt better and better about my surfing," she said.

All along though, she has been at ease with her physical disability. She had a life-like prosthetic arm custom made for her; but she almost never uses it.

"Living in Kauai, everybody knows who I am and it's not really gonna make me more confident having a real arm and a fake arm," she said.

"It doesn't even really help me. It's not that I don't like it, but it doesn't really come in handy, because living in Hawaii I'm running around and it's not like it's waterproof. And it doesn't help me paddle any faster."

Mental Strength

Hamilton, now 15 years old, not only had to overcome physical obstacles, but psychological ones too. "You never know" if it could happen again, she said.

She said she deals with her fears by singing a song or praying. "Or [I] just try to ignore it and, you know like, it's always in my mind, and it always will be, but I gotta keep my mind on having fun, and just surfing."

Her brother, Noah, showed how a special design on Bethany's surfboard also helps: It's designed to ward off sharks. It looks a little like zebra stripes, and mimics a poisonous sea creature.

"Sharks are way scared of this pattern ... it's kind of a repellant," he said. "But the main thing is, it's a total confidence booster."

Meanwhile, Hamilton's mother, Cheri, says the family has made other arrangements in the name of safety.

"We don't go out [surfing] at the worst hours of the day, during the sharks ' feeding time -- early morning or late at night."

Hamilton has seen three sharks in the water since she got in again -- including one time when a 5-foot hammerhead shark swam right under her board -- and she's come in to the beach, her mother said.

Her father, Tom, says Hamilton has "never had a pity party" over losing her arm in the shark attack.

Hamilton said she does ask herself "why me?" on occasion, but said, "Every time I ask that question I think of all the good that has come out of it through my faith."

She says her strong religious faith as a Christian has helped her accept losing her arm to a shark attack and that "more positive has come out of it than negative."

Triumph Over Tragedy

Three-time world champion surfer Andy Irons, who's been watching Hamilton since she was 6, says he's amazed by her.

"Every time I see her on the beach, I mean I watch her the whole time just to see how she gets out if she catches a wave and she's amazing. She's probably the most athletic person I've ever seen," he said.

Irons added that he thinks Hamilton "with this tragic accident has become a more popular surfer than she ever could as a professional ... people know her in Middle America, Germany, Beirut, anywhere you go in the world, they know who Bethany Hamilton is."

Before all this happened, Hamilton says she would have been comfortable being described as a "happy little surfer girl."

Asked how she sees herself now, she replied: "A happy, little, famous surfer girl."

Hamilton has received hundreds of thousands of letters and e-mails from well-wishers and others who have been inspired by her positive attitude in the face of adversity. Tom Hamilton says his daughter has on occasion reached out to other kids who've lost limbs and tried to help them out of their depression.

She is planning to go to Thailand to work with kids who have been devastated by the recent tsunami disaster.

"I want to go down there and help them overcome their fear of water; and I think that them seeing me in the water surfing or just swimming will hopefully help them with their fear and to just overcome it," she said.

As for her future as a surfer, Hamilton said: "I think it doesn't matter if you are the best surfer in the world. I'm going to try to be the best surfer I can be. It's not all about competing and being the best. It's more about having fun and just doing what you love."