Bethany Hamilton was gearing up to surf some of the biggest waves of her career, all in front of a filmmaker documenting her life, when the universe threw her another curve ball. The blonde Hawaii native was not easily fazed; she was, after all, already dominating her sport despite the loss of her arm in a shark attack at age 13.
But when she found out she was pregnant, at the height of her game in her mid-20s and after just over a year of marriage, her lifelong dream of motherhood seemed to be happening too fast and too soon – and she wasn’t sure how to grapple with it.
‘I don’t even know what I was thinking,’ Bethany, now 28, says in the new documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable. ‘I had fears of not being able to surf as well or even have the time to surf – but I also had one-armed fears: changing his diaper, holding his head stable enough and being a good mom.
‘I’ve always really looked forward to being a mom one day; that was one of my greatest hopes in life. But then when it finally came … I was almost like rejecting that great hope that I’ve always had.’
For months, she didn’t tell her competitors or her legions of fans around the world; she kept the news quiet as she wrapped her head around her new reality.
Bethany Hamilton, 28, is one of the world’s top surfers and allowed filmmaker Aaron Lieber extraordinary access to her life – documenting her journey from childhood in Hawaii through a shark attack that took her left arm through her rise back to the heights of international surfing
The new documentary – Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable – also offers intimate glimpses into Hamilton’s family life with husband Adam and son Tobias; birth just last month she announced the birth of her second child, Wesley Phillip, not pictured
The film includes incredible footage and underwater shots, in addition to using home video footage and interviews with friends, family and members of the surfing community
Following the birth of Wesley, left, Hamilton said she and her family were ‘overjoyed’ to welcome him into the world and ‘it’s been a beautiful time getting life started with the four of us’
Hamilton says in the film that motherhood had been a lifelong dream of hers
‘I think it was a unique time for us – for her to realize that I’m there for her, to bring her through any challenges, that … we’re going to figure out a way to make our lives work with this kid and still be able to do the things that we love,’ Bethany’s husband, Adam, says in the documentary, which premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Bethany adds: ‘As I started to see his excitement and, like, the other people’s excitement around me, I was like, wow, this is a gift from God.’
One person who was in on the secret from a very early stage was filmmaker Aaron Lieber, who was making the documentary about Bethany’s life and who flew to Hawaii to continue documenting her journey – witnessing firsthand the grueling workout regime she maintained and even capturing astounding footage of the surfer on her board while heavily pregnant.
‘My surfing got smoother; I got better at surfing while I was pregnant,’ says Bethany, with a hint of incredulity.
Lieber, for one, remained awed by her determination, routine and physical strength. He’d wanted to tell her story not just as a shark attack survivor or amputee but as an indomitable athlete whose surfing, attitude and routine were practically unrivalled – and Bethany’s fortitude through her unexpected pregnancy, and afterwards, completely fit with the ‘unstoppable’ theme.
She gave birth to her first son, Tobias, on June 1, 2015 – and she was back on her board a few short weeks later, preparing for yet another competition. (Her second son, Wesley Phillip, was born just last month.)
‘What really impresses me, and it still does to this day, is just her work ethic,’ Lieber tells DailyMail.com. ‘I’m eating a burger, I’m winding down; she’s going to bed with Tobias and doing an ab workout in bed – not that I’ve seen her do it, but her husband Adam is like, “Dude, she’s doing abs in the morning, at night…” She just has this ability to go, “I am going to push through the pain and get this done.”’
He points to an incident from a surfing trip to Bali with Bethany that illustrates that perseverance.
‘She popped her rib out; she was having trouble breathing, in a lot of pain,’ Lieber says. ‘She didn’t tell me ‘til the trip was over! Two weeks later, she was like, “Oh, yeah, I popped my rib out, I was in a lot of pain, but I didn’t want to complain.”’
He adds: ‘Her work ethic, you kind of see it, but then once you get to work with her, you’re like, “Oh wow – you are on another level.”’
Hamilton, hospitalized after a shark attacked her and bit off her left arm while she was surfing in Hawaii, was determined to continue excelling at the sport she loved
Photo courtesy of Noah Hamilton Photography
Hamilton competes in the Outerknown Fiji Women’s Pro surfing competition in Fiji in May 2017; fellow pro surfer Tyler Wright says in the film: ‘How she’s been able to adapt and be the powerhouse that she is is absolutely incredible’
Hamilton is pictured with filmmaker Lieber, who tells DailyMail.com: ‘She could’ve chosen to live a quiet and simple life, but she has this passion for surfing, and so she works at it … My idea was to tell her story in an authentic way, and I hoped that would resonate with people and inspire them, whatever they’re struggling with in their life’
Hamilton married her husband Adam, who worked in youth ministry, in 2013; she found out she was pregnant the following year and admits in the film that she initially found the news difficult, though she had always hoped to one day be a parent
Hamilton continued to surf and even compete while pregnant; she says in the film that her surfing ‘got smoother; I got better at surfing while I was pregnant’
The making of the film was ‘kind of this three-year process of seeing her ability against the best female surfers in the world, and seeing that there was something there beyond this idea of, yeah, she survived a shark attack. Cool,’ says Lieber, referring to when a 14-foot tiger shark bit off Hamilton’s arm in October 2003.
‘But really she’s one of the best female surfers in the world – and that’s what sparked my interest, like, wow, this could be something really special,’ the filmmaker tells DailyMail.com.
‘I saw all these goals that she had for her life and all these dreams and, you know, it can be challenging when people in the world tend to try to put you in this box of this or that … my goal was to capture her and document her and tell her story that is authentic to who she is.
‘We’re not trying to put a twist on this or that; being with her for four years and getting to know her so well really allowed me the ability to tell her story from her perspective – and obviously mine as well – but really trying to get in there and bring all that to the surface. And she works so hard.
‘A lot of her peers are competing month in and month out on the world tour, so you have that peer-to-peer competition – whereas she’s doing it off on her own. To get as good as she’s gotten by herself is a feat in and of itself, regardless of limb loss or not. To work that hard is just an incredible thing to watch and really inspiring for me.’
The film traces Bethany’s surf dreams from childhood, which she spent on Hawaii with her siblings and parents, all avid surfers, as her mom and dad worked multiple jobs to support the family. Her mother delivered magazines, Bethany explains in the film, enabling her to tag along on trips and surf different spots all over the island. The documentary features interviews with her family, friends, peers and others – and includes not only intimate scenes filmed by Lieber but old footage from family home videos.
In one clip, filmed before Bethany lost her arm, her mother Cheri chats with Bethany and her best friend.
‘Are you concerned about sharks at all? How do you deal with it?’ Cheri asks.
‘Just pray,’ says a young Bethany.
Her strong Christian faith sustained her after the loss of her arm; she says she knew six days after the attack that she wanted to get back on her board – and she was also inspired by another surfer, Mike Coots, who continued surfing after losing his leg in a shark attack.
Hamilton is pictured before the shark attack, left, after which she wrote the book Soul Surfer, which was a New York Times bestseller later turned into a movie starring Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid and AnnaSophia Robb
Hamilton, who became an inspirational figure around the globe following the attack and her triumphant return to surfing, has credited her strong Christian faith with helping her through the experience
Hamilton and her husband – who director Lieber calls ‘a solid, calm, smart and supportive person’ – discuss their relationship in the film; she says ‘I couldn’t be where I am today without the way that he’s supported me’
Family footage included in the documentary shows Hamilton and Coots chatting while she’s still in the hospital; he assures the young surfer that he’s tried paddling with one arm, and it can be done – and the 13-year-old looks completely confident that she’ll get the hang of it. Sure enough, she was soon surfing again – and winning.
Unstoppable follows Hamilton as she surfs some of the world’s toughest waves and Lieber, well known for his surf cinematography, worked hard to get the best shots – whether he was underwater with a go-pro or mounting a camera on her board.
‘For people who don’t surf, it’s interesting and informative,’ says Lieber – adding that Hamilton’s success story translates far beyond the world of competitive surfing.
‘I think we’re in a really unique space right now with everything happening politically in our country, with the women’s movement and all these different things,’ he says. ‘I think the film could speak volumes to so many, and I hope it does.
‘I hope, in a world where everything seems to be a little negative spin right now, hopefully this is a little shine of positivity.’
He says: ‘I really want this to impact the next generation of women coming up.’
He applauds Hamilton’s honesty and openness in the film, which showcases many intimate moments in her life – not least her struggle to accept her pregnancy.
‘It’s been really fun watching her and Adam become parents,’ Lieber says. ‘That is a quantum shift from just thinking about yourself and what you want to achieve. Before she met Adam – you see I tin the film – it was very draining to go out into the world by herself and always having to be the rock in tough situations emotionally. So when Adam and her came together, Adam was (and is to this day) such a solid, calm, smart and supportive person.
‘Them coming together, I saw Bethany blossom in a whole new way. That was so fun to watch and obviously to document.’
Hamilton and her husband, a former youth minister, are also very candid about their relationship in the film.
‘Being a guy, I want to provide,’ says Adam, who is originally from Kansas and worked in youth ministry before traveling the world with Bethany. ‘I want to be depended on, because that’s how I grew up. That’s how everyone I knew grew up. It was definitely, like, challenging. I started out thinking, okay, for this few years or something I’m going to support Bethany and things are going to like phase out and then I’ll get a job.’
She, however, says: ‘I think it would just be really hard on us to be separated so much, if he was busy with our own endeavors.’
‘There’s definitely a balance that we’re trying to find,’ he says – with his wife conceding: ‘I couldn’t be where I am today without the way that he’s supported me.’
Hamilton shared details on social media of her workout regime throughout her second pregnancy, adding that she surfed up until she was about six and a half months pregnant
Hamilton’s grueling workout regime is chronicled in Unstoppable, with everyone from interview subjects to the director himself marveling at her nonstop commitment to fitness
Lieber shares how Hamilton’s husband told him that the surfer would often retire to bed at night with her son Tobias and still do abs workouts
Hamilton shares her love of fitness and a healthy lifestyle with fans and hopes to inspire people around the world
Lieber, who is renowned for his surf cinematography, went to great lengths to achieve the best shots for the documentary, whether it be using a Gopro underwater or mounting cameras to boards
Hamilton’s friend and fellow Hawaiian pro surfer Carissa Moore says: ‘The craziest thing for me is seeing her here in Fiji as a mom and multitasking between heats – holding Tobias, making it all happen and keeping things organized and focused – which is so cool for all the girls on tour, especially me. ‘I was like, I’m going to way til my career’s over and then have kids; it’s really cool to see, hey, you can do both’
Bethany ‘popped out a rib’ while filming but didn’t tell Lieber for more than a week; he says ‘She just has this ability to go, “I am going to push through the pain and get this done”’
Director Lieber says: ‘I think we’re in a really unique space right now with everything happening politically in our country, with the women’s movement and all these different things … I think the film could speak volumes to so many, and I hope it does. ‘I hope, in a world where everything seems to be a little negative spin right now, hopefully this is a little shine of positivity.’
And her friends and competitors, interviewed in the film, marvel at the level of her skill – and her unstoppable drive.
‘How she’s been able to adapt and be the powerhouse that she is is absolutely incredible,’ pro surfer Tyler Wright says. ‘I don’t know how she does it.’
Hamilton’s friend and fellow Hawaiian pro surfer Carissa Moore says: ‘The craziest thing for me is seeing her here in Fiji as a mom and multitasking between heats – holding Tobias, making it all happen and keeping things organized and focused – which is so cool for all the girls on tour, especially me.
‘I was like, I’m going to way til my career’s over and then have kids; it’s really cool to see, hey, you can do both.’
And the point of the documentary is exactly that, Lieber says – showing viewers, and especially young women, what can be achieved through determination and perseverance.
‘My idea is that people can be unstoppable in their own lives, and it’s a choice,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘She could’ve chosen to, like she says in the film, she could’ve chosen to live a quiet and simple life, but she has this passion for surfing, and so she works at it … there’s all these messages that are kind of layered in there.
‘The idea of, just be unstoppable … you could apply that to your health: “Okay, I’m going to really buckle down and be healthy;” or you could apply that to mental illness. There’s so many different things for everybody. My idea was to tell her story in an authentic way, and I hoped that would resonate with people and inspire them, whatever they’re struggling with in their life.’