Interview With Bethany Hamilton on Overcoming Fear, and Being Unstoppable in the Water and Beyond

She became a household name as a young teenager, and Bethany Hamilton, now a mom to three, continues to highlight the bright side of just about everything.

Interview Jul 18, 2021

by Victoria Oldridge

Bethany Hamilton has become a source of inspiration to millions through her story of determination, faith, and hope. At the age of 13, Bethany lost her left arm to a 14-foot tiger shark, which seemed to end her career as a rising surf star. One month after the attack, Bethany returned to the water and within two years had won her first national title. In 2007, she realized her dream of surfing professionally. Bethany’s latest project, Unstoppable, a surf documentary which showcases her as one of the best women surfers in the world, released theatrically in the USA on July 12, 2019. Passionate about helping young women be unstoppable in life and faith, Bethany has launched a new website and online course for sharing content and facilitating connection.

Truffld: Fitness evolves differently between sports, but also across the lifespan, including after childbirth, and as of a few months ago you've now done that three times! How do you approach fitness postpartum?

Bethany: I feel like with fitness and just everything in life, it's continually evolving. I'm a mom of three boys now, and my youngest is four-and-a-half months so I'm slowly easing my way back into the gym. I like to let the body do its thing and recover early on after having a baby. After having my first two boys I had a lot of pelvic pain, so that's forced me to rethink how I'm approaching health and fitness right now. I'm doing pelvic reconditioning and body functional movements, and even the quick 20 minutes I had in the gym this morning, I really cherish. Having one arm, a lot of my focus is on keeping my body in alignment and developing good posture which I've learned a lot about of the past 20 years – it's really shaped my approach to health and fitness.

I'm not a 'Crossfitter,' I don't approach the gym in that way because from my perspective and from what I've learned [relating to posture, alignment] it doesn't seem functional in the long run – plus, with surfing you want to have a fluid – almost dancer's approach – so one trainer who's had a lot of influence in my life, has incorporated a lot of dance movements to keep that going. I have a unique approach to fitness and I love it. It's fun, it's challenging. I'd like to get into lifting weights a bit more but I've been advised to wait until I'm a year postpartum to minimize any pounding on the body or joints, especially given the relaxin that the body is pushing out; it can be counterproductive for long-term health. I think I must be doing something right because I'm 31 now and haven't really had a major injury yet in my sport except for minor knee and ankle things or a slice in the leg from a surfboard fin.

Image credit, Trevor Murphy

Truffld: In the film, Unstoppable you must have been at least seven or eight months pregnant and you were out there slaying waves no differently than you were pre-pregnancy – in fact, you said that you were surfing even faster while pregnant. There's a lot of judgement in the world about what we should or shouldn't be doing while pregnant or as parents in general, yet it's so critically important – for ourselves and those around us – that we maintain other aspects of our identity. How have you managed to do that so seemingly gracefully?

Bethany: Yeah, it's such a fine line to balance, because on one hand I think about how my parents raised me and set me up for a life of more confidence and how to approach the chaos of the world that we may have to face, and one of the greatest gifts they gave me was time with them; I think that made a huge difference in figuring out myself and who I was as a young woman. Not only that, but leading me to live a life of faith in God, and to chase my passions passionately and fearlessly.

My mom was such an athlete and a die hard surfer but she let that go during her mothering years and she lost her fitness – she's an amazing woman and I admire her so much but I was like, 'Mom, you need to get into the ocean and you need to make that a priority and you need to eat healthy,' and she didn't. That influenced my approach to motherhood and I said to myself, 'After each child I'm getting myself back in shape because I don't want to let go of surfing – I love it so much regardless of whether I'm competitive because it's such a leisure sport that you can do as long as your body allows. So, I had to set boundaries for myself and said to my husband, "Hun, I need this time to get my body back. It may not be exactly how it was before, but as long as I can get back up on the board and have fun." A big goal of mine is to train my kids to understand the ocean and get comfortable out there so that we can all surf as a family; my six-year-old already loves to and I can't wait to surf with him more as he gets older.

Truffld: I saw a social media post of you recording your boys barreling down a skateboard ramp – you were enthusiastically encouraging them while simultaneously trying to contain a nervous shriek that enveloped your words. That symbolized an interesting sentiment that I think resonates with all parents: walking that balance beam between helping them to spread their wings while at times feeling terrified in the process.

Bethany: Yeah [laughing], when I was watching them skateboard, I was cheering them on in the middle of stress and anxiety. I can totally 'bubble' them and be like, 'I don't want you to fall,' but if you do that they'll never have fun, and I feel like we're definitely in a culture of training our kids to be fearful and I am not for that at all. I'm all for training them up to be healthy and responsible but also have fun and go for it kinds of humans.

I was talking to my husband last night and saying, "Parenting has to be the hardest thing in the world;" just the mental side of it, and balancing it out by recognizing our flaws and not putting those on our children. If I'm a super fearful mom, it's about seeing that and either working through it or supressing it in front of your kids so that they don't grow up fearful about all of the things they could potentially get hurt by – but chances are, if you just give them the right tools and push them in the right direction, they'll figure out life and be fine. I'll share an example: I loved surfing at a young age and my parents were of course, all for that, but they prepared me for the ocean by putting me on a swim team – I routinely swam laps for an hour straight, swam competitively until age 12 and did junior lifeguarding – and I was kind of invincible in the ocean. If I had any issues I could paddle myself out of it, or I could swim myself out of it. Just providing for ourselves to deal with and handle fear, recognize the risks, but also balance them with tools is important so that the fear isn't overwhelming our minds.

Truffld: You and your husband, Adam, are collaborating a lot more now as a couple on motivational speaking, showcasing aspects of your fitness regimen together, and your overall approach to life as a couple, though historically there's been a heavy focus on your surfing career because especially with a family, it can be too challenging for both parents to be traveling around the world. How have you and Adam navigated taking turns with your professional interests, and what sorts of obstacles has it posed?

Bethany: In Unstoppable, it was important for us to share this balance between husband and wife and roles, and figuring things out, and of course when we got married...I'm just a unique human, so there was a lot to work through – my mom actually said the other day, "Adam didn't know what he was signing up for when he married you" [laughing]. But there were some aspects, specifically right after we got married, where I was kind of in this weird season with my professional surfing career; it didn't feel like it was done but it wasn't exactly going great, but I felt like I was one of the best female surfers in the world, so he was like 'Hey, let's just pursue your career for the next three-five years and let you check-off some of the boxes.' That's when I started filming the documentary and he was completely supportive, but of course that was a battle for him because he wasn't really working at all – if he was, we would have been apart a lot and that wasn't the life we wanted to live. Then I got pregnant along the way and he was on full 'daddy duty' but it actually gave him a lot of purpose and made life that much better bringing our little guy along for the ride. But yeah, it's a continual thing where we're always working out the ebbs and flows of life and different pursuits of money-making but also our passions, helping the world, and enjoying our family time. We just teamwork everything and I love what we've got going and Adam's such a super dad and a wonderful husband

Image credit, Mary Ernsdorf

Truffld: You've launched your Unstoppable Courses, which are really holistic as you're touching upon everything from fitness, nutrition, finances, and faith, to relationships. How are various aspects of your day-to-day life informing the design of the courses?

Bethany: Ever since I was 13 years old and became a household name, it's been this challenge for me of discovering my character and being pulled in different directions but staying on the path of who I am, and I attribute so much of that to faith, but also being in nature. Even as a teenager I saw a need for people around the world needing help and love and support, so now fast-forward ten years after working on movies and writing some books, we were looking for more beyond being an inspiration, but also being able to equip people. I'm sharing everything that I've learned along the way to live with more resilience and courage but without having that need for perfection or to have it all together at all times, and to give ourselves more grace.

Today I'm trying to share that message of 'Hey, you can be unstoppable too,' and it's not about being perfect, it's about finding who you are, developing the tools you need to manage the chaos of life – and the things that come out of nowhere. It's possible. There's so much we can do when we approach life with the right mindset...but we have to find it, and to work through the weak spots or the areas that we're not even aware of half the time.  

Especially after the last 18 months [Covid-19], everyone's been challenged beyond their mind's comprehension with stress, relationships, health, and everything being flipped upside down. But what if we can take all of that and find our ability to feel peace amongst the chaos and an ability to overcome even when we don't think we can. I find that a lot of the advice out there is very 'me-centered,' and I'm not against healing or helping myself but with what goals in mind? To have a goal to better serve others – whether it be my family or others outside of it – I think it gives us more of a reason to wake up in the morning and we're driven forward with purpose.

If I leave you with one thing today, the things that are interwoven throughout my life and the Unstoppable Courses, is: being thankful, forgiving, being of faith, and knowing who I am, and then letting everything else in life grow from that.

Learn more about Bethany and her Unstoppable Courses

Connect with Bethany on IG

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