Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton made headlines in 2003 when she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark, resulting in the loss of her arm.
But her story was far from over.
A new documentary, “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,” gives a behind-the-scenes look at the athlete’s life, beginning before the shark attack and continuing throughout her return to the surfboard and impressive career. Releasing July 12, the film is a follow-up to the 2011 drama “Soul Surfer,” starring AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt, and Dennis Quaid.
“We actually started this project six years ago, and it was at a time where I was a bit burned out by all the travel and interviews that came along with ‘Soul Surfer,’” Hamilton recalled. “But it was during a surfing trip with some friends that [director Aaron Lieber] saw me surf and said, ‘I’d love to film you surfing. All you have to do is go out on the ocean.’ That’s all he had to say, and I was in.”
Originally, Lieber planned to make a short six-minute surf film featuring Hamilton’s surfing. But over the years, the project evolved, resulting in a 90-minute full documentary showcasing Hamilton’s athleticism, tenacity, and optimism.
The original title for the project, Hamilton revealed, was “Surf Like a Girl.”
“Right now there’s this movement of, girls are absolutely amazing,” she said. “I think that phrase used to be negative, but to be honest I surf better than most guys. To me, ‘surf like a girl’ means, you have a femininity to you, but you also have this God-given gift you need to own. I’d encourage other girls to have fun with it — don’t apologize for being good at something. Enjoy your femininity while also honing your skill.”
“Unstoppable,” she said, seemed like a more fitting title for the film given her determination to defy overwhelming odds, winning major competition titles and being inducted into the Surfer's Hall of Fame despite her limb difference. In addition to her skill, the continued support she’s received from her friends and family over the years, the athlete said, has significantly contributed her to success.
“I do think I have a professional athlete’s mentality of doing whatever it takes to succeed and working hard, but I think a lot of it is learned from those who have supported me over the years," she said. “I’d encourage girls to surround themselves with good friends who are uplifting and encouraging and like-minded and bring the best out of you. I have the most amazing group of girlfriends; hunt down those people who are going to be that for you.
“Surfing isn’t always fun and games, but you do it anyway. I’ve been privileged to have a lot of support in my life,” she added.
In addition to awe-inspiring footage of Hamilton skillfully maneuvering towering waves, “Unstoppable” documents the 29-year-old’s marriage to Adam Dirks and the birth of their first child, Tobias.
“I think the ocean taught me so much about motherhood; just about perseverance and continually showing up,” Hamilton said. “Also, a theme throughout my life is thankfulness; being thankful for all the blessings in my life. My kids have challenged me in ways no one else has, and I love them so much. I try to cherish every moment.”
An outspoken Christian, Hamilton said her faith has been her “rock” throughout her life, helping her remain positive in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
“My faith in God was a huge source of comfort in my life through all the ups and downs and challenges,” she said. “I always knew God was there, and His faithfulness was steadfast no matter what I felt or what I was going through or how painful things were.”
“I always knew that I had value and that I could overcome anything,” she added.
Through “Unstoppable,” Hamilton said she hopes to shatter expectations of what a “shark attack victim” looks like and inspire others to find hope in even the bleakest of circumstances.
“I do have a limb difference, but that hasn’t defined me,” she shared. “I want to be an uplifting role model and encourage others to keep showing up even when it feels impossible.”
“Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.