One-Armed Surfing Star Says Upcoming Biopic Is 'Spot On'

In "Nightline" exclusive, Bethany Hamilton describes scenes from "Soul Surfer."

March 29, 2011— -- Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton became an international sensation when she lost her left arm and nearly died in a vicious shark attack off the coast of Hawaii more than seven years ago. Now the story of her harrowing attack and comeback is about to premiere on the silver screen.

"I definitely would allow the shark attack to happen," Hamilton said. "The thing for me is I know that God allowed it to happen because of all the good stuff that has come from this terrible experience."

"Soul Surfer," which opens in theaters April 8, is the movie adaptation of Hamilton's 2004 book about her life, "Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family and Fighting to Get Back on the Board." The 21-year-old Kauai, Hawaii, native said she has been blown away by what has happened to her since losing her arm.

"My family and I just [had] a pretty humble lifestyle," she said. "Everything just changed after the shark attack."

After the movie got under way, Hamilton said she helped choose actress AnnaSophia Robb to play her. Robb is most known for her leading role in 2007's "The Bridge to Terabithia."

"She's playing me when I'm younger, you know, so she's about the height I was." said Hamilton, who now towers over Robb.

Robb called it the roll of a lifetime, and said, "I heard about Bethany's story when I was younger, and I was so shocked that she could get back in the water after something that traumatizing happened to her."

Hamilton did all of her own one-armed stunt work for the film. She also taught Robb how to surf and how to get over her own fear of sharks.

"Every time I went out I was always looking in the water," Robb said. "I was kind of nervous. Bethany told me, just don't look down. I figure, if she can still get back out there and not worry, than I should be able to as well."

The movie's shark attack scene lasts only a few seconds, but Hamilton said it was incredibly accurate.

"It's really spot on," she said. "It's not really hard for me to watch, but I see it and it's like exactly how it happened. It was just really quick. I didn't see anything."

The surfing champion first told her story to "20/20" weeks after the October 2003 attack on Halloween morning. Thirteen years old at the time, Hamilton said she was at her favorite spot, called "the Tunnels," when her life changed forever.

"I was lying on my board sideways. And then ... the shark came up and grabbed ahold of my arm," she told "20/20" in a November 2003 interview.

"And then, I was holding onto my board, with my thumb, because I probably didn't want to get pulled under. It was like pulling me back and forth, not like pulling me underwater. Just like, you know how you eat a piece of steak? It was kind of like that. And then it let go. And then went under. Then I looked down at the water, and it was like really red, from all the blood in the water."

Hamilton said the attack happened so quickly that none of the surfers around her ever saw the creature or her struggle with it. But the attack severed her left arm just below the shoulder.

Bethany Hamilton Describes the 2003 Shark Attack

"I think I figured out that if I panicked, then things wouldn't go as good as if I was calm," Hamilton said. "I was praying to God to rescue me and help me, and then I had this one pretty funny thought. I was thinking, 'I wonder if I'm going to lose my sponsor.'"

What turned out to be a 1,400 pound, 14-foot-long tiger shark took a 16-inch bite out of her surfboard, and Hamilton nearly died from loss of blood.

"When I first saw her in the hospital that morning, she looked really pale, but she had a brightness in her eyes that I could just say, 'You know, she's going to be all right,'" Hamilton's mother, Sherry Hamilton, told ESPN at the time.

In "Soul Surfer," Sherry Hamilton is played by actress Helen Hunt of TV's "Mad About You" fame, and Bethany's father, Tom Hamilton, is played by actor Dennis Quaid.

There are a few elements of fiction in "Soul Surfer," though, such as Hamilton's potential love interest.

"I don't have a boyfriend," she said. "Life's pretty hectic right now, and I'm not really in a rush. I'm really just excited to save my purity for marriage, and I'm not really hunting down any one person but just enjoying life."

At the time of the attack, many doubted if Hamilton could ever surf competitively again, but she just back into the water only a month later and pushed through it. She earned the silver medal at the Billabong ASP 2009 World Junior Pro championships.

Hamilton once described surfing with one arm as similar to doing a "one arm pushup."

"I'm pretty used to it," Hamilton said. "I forget what it used to be like" to have two arms.

But when she first returned to surfing, Hamilton had to relearn a sport that had become second nature.

"I kind of struggled on my first couple of waves and didn't get up," she said. "I got up on my third wave and road it all the way to the beach. I was just so stoked, just had this joy feeling inside me."

To help her paddle out to the waves, her father came up with the idea of putting a handle on her board so she could catch her balance.

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

It's no wonder that Hamilton's biggest challenge and the incident that propelled her to national fame happened in the water. Born into a family of surfers, Hamilton had been catching waves and trophies since the age of 8.

Hamilton had drawn as much admiration from her community after the attack as she had before. Many have called her a role model, although she said she doesn't feel like one.

"I'm still surfing and loving life and being able to reach people a lot more than I would have, probably, with two arms," she said.

Her positive attitude won her a 2004 ESPY Award from ESPN for Best Comeback Athlete of the Year and a special Teen Courage Award. She's now ranked among the top 10 professional women surfers in the world.

On top of physical hurdles, Hamilton has overcome psychological ones too, namely, the fear of another attack.

"You never know" if it could happen again, she said. "When I'm feeling scared I just sing a song or pray ... or [I] just try to ignore it and, you know like, it's always in my mind."

Hamilton on Becoming a Role Model for Others

"I just do my best to be smart about when and where I surf," she said. "I don't go out if it's questionable. And when I'm out, I head in if I get scared or think I see a shark."

Over time, Hamilton became comfortable with her physical disability. Early on, she had a prosthetic arm custom made for her but chose not to use it.

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

"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."

Hamilton travels the world for surfing competitions but also for causes she believes in. She went to Thailand with an organization called World Vision to help young children who'd been devastated by the tsunami disaster. Drawing on her own experience, she helped them overcome their fear of the ocean.

Spending countless hours in the ocean, Hamilton has brought her love of the environment to her career. She runs a thriving business that includes inspirational speaking engagements, movies, books, videos, fragrances, accessories and a line of environmentally-friendly footwear.

With each product, she includes an encouraging message about environmental awareness, such as taking care of local beaches by picking up the trash. It is her hope to inspire new generations with her company slogan: "Be Ocean Minded!" That's not the only message she hopes to pass on.

"There's little kids, and they have dreams, and I think they should go for it," she said. "Not let the world tell them what they can and cannot do and really just set their mind to it and have fun with it."

For more information on Bethany Hamilton, visit her website,